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Lecture given before the "Kaiuwa Club'' 
UniversUy of MinnesoUL 


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Respectfully dedicated to 

Professor E, W, Olmsted 

A tribute to his discennng and sympathetic 
understanding of European Letters 


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I. Flemish Literature 9 

II. Guido Gezelle, the Man 23 

III. Guido Gezelle, the Artist 34 

IV. Guido Gezelle, the Mystic 58 


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L Flemish Literature* 

The West Flanders fields and meadows, where 
the epic of the world war saw enacted so many of its 
dramas, now lie before our imagination as a desert 
of devastation, a plain of bloody mud, where slow 
trayeling clouds, the smoke of burning cities, ob- 
scure the horizon. The fields, kneaded by the un- 
ceasing tramp of armies stretch out as a limitless 
waste, where white croses mark the thousands of 
graves, where the black-yeiled of Flanders come to 
pray by eventide. . . It was around the Yser, in 
the low plain of West-Flanders, that many of the 
most resounding blows of the world war were 
struck. There the Belgian army stood for years 
shielding desperately from the invader the last rem- 
nant of their country, obstinately clinging to the 
villages saved after the German onrush of 1914. 
Now the blackened walls of the ruined towns, Dix- 
muide, Rousselaere and Ypres, stand in their tragic 
beauty as monuments of the great Crime. 

But the fields of Flanders, healed by time, will 
flourish again as a flowering garden, built up anew 
by the invisible hands of nature. This desolated 
country will be restored to its former beauty: the 
blue flax fields, the golden waving wheat on the 
slopes, the soft green pastures, the patches of pur- 
ple clover carpeting the undulating hills, the white 


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roads winding between rows of poplars, the blurred 
mirrors of the ponds, stretching under an irides- 
cent sky, bathed in the prismatic light sifting thru 
the restless drifts of silky white clouds. And against 
the blue horizon is silhouetted a distant town, quiet- 
ly reposing on the hillside, with its Gothic spires 
and Flemish gables clear-cut in the golden shim- 
mer of evening, delicate and finely delineated like 
an old etching. 

This characteristic landscape of South Fland- 
ers, these fields and hills and meadows found, be- 
fore the war, a poet to love them in all their as- 
pects, to incarnate their very soul in his songs: 

In consecrating a few pages to him — the first 
introduction so far as I am aware, of his work to 
America — I am merely performing a duty to an 
artist of originality and power to whom the world 
has paid scant homage. In Holland and Flanders 
he is now hailed as a poet whose work is part of 
this most winnowed choice of spiritual grain: the 
best poetry of the 19th century. Yet his very 
name is unknown, in English-speaking countries, 
even to many students of literature, however catho- 
lic and sympathetic their tastes. We can account 
for this neglect by the fact that Gezelle wrote in 
the almost untranslatable dialect of West Flanders, 
and that, until recent years, he was misunderstood, 
even in his own country. 

To supply the proper background for the ap- 
preciation of his work, it is necessary to repeat 
some facts about Belgium, its languages and liter- 
atures: Belgium is a bilingual country. Flemish, 
a tongue only slightly different from Dutch, is spok- 


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en in the northern part of the country and in some 
districts of France, around Hasebrouck. Walloon, 
a French dialect, is the tongue of Southern Bel- 
gium. French is the official language. Centuries 
of French influence have left deep traces in Fland- 
ers. The Flemish bourgeoisie and the richer class- 
es have adopted Blench and in many instances, 
know no more about their Flemish mother-tongue 
than many Irishmen about Gaelic. The Flemish 
masses, however, have clung tenaciously to their 
own speech and have for a century been increasing 
in numbers. 

In America, the modern Belgian literature is 
known and appreciated especially thru the achieve- 
ments of two outstanding writers of world-fame: 
Maeterlinck and Verhaeren. Altho both were Flem- 
ings by ancestry and temperament, they wrote in 
French, like not a few of their countrymen, all 
more or less well known beyond the narrow limits 
of their fatherland; Charles de Coster, whose epic 
of Flanders "Thyl Bulenspiegel," is one of the 
most remarkable of modem works; Camille Lem- 
onier, the author of "Un M&le"; Georges Eeckhoud, 
whose novels are now being translated into Eng- 
lish; Georges Rodenbach, the author of the melan- 
choly story "Bruges-la-Morte"; Charles van Ler- 
berghe, the most gifted and refined of French-writ- 
ing Flemings; Max Blskamp, 'EJug. Demolder, Vic- 
tor Kinon, Georges Ramaeckers, Thomas Braun and 
many others. But the Flemish literature of French 
expression, luxuriantly flourishing as it is, repre- 
sents only one side of the literary production of 
Belgium. The literature in Flemish has been meri- 
torious and of commanding interest since the Middle 
Ages. In modem times, it has produced poets of 


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robust lyrical power or exquisite refinement as well 
as prose writers of original merit. For yarious 
reasons, the difficulties of the language, for instance, 
their works have scarcely been brought before the 
international public. "There is/' says an English 
critic, Sir John Bowring, "a country within sight 
of the shores of our island whose literature is less 
known to us than that of Persia or Hindostan, a 
country, too, distinguished for its civilization, and 
its important contributions to the mass of human 

knowledge It is indeed most strange, that 

while the poets of Germany have found hundreds 
of admirers and thousands of critics, those of a 
land nearer in position, more allied by habit and 
history with our thoughts and recollections, should 
have been passed by unnoticed". These words need 
few changes to be applied to America, especially 
as far as the modem Flemish authors are con- 

The reader will perhaps raise the question: 
Why do some of the Flemish authors insist on 
writing in Flemish, a tongue so limited in use? 
Why do they not follow the larger and easier road 
to success, international fame and wealth, which 
Maeterlinck and Verhaeren followed, by writing in 
French, which for most of them has become a sec- 
ond mother tongue? Why write in the speech of 
the lower and the middle classes of Flanders, neg- 
lecting the richer French-speaking bourgeoisie? 

In the first place, these writers in Flemish are 
the literary sponsors of a movement seeking a 
homogeneous Flemish culture, the "Flemish move- 
ment," the important political aspects of which fall 
outside the scope of these pages, which are de- 


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voted exclusively to Flemish literaturie. Besides 
the inspiration drawn from the strong race-con- 
sciousness of the Flemings, there exists a social 
reason: Flemish writers care little for success in 
foreign countries so long as their own people can 
not read their works. Maeterlinck for instance, is 
read only by the intellectuals among the Flemings. 
The real Flemish-speaking people, the working and 
middle classes hardly know his name, which years 
ago crossed the Atlantic. Verhaeren, who has ad- 
mirably sung the Flemish masses, the workers, the 
peasants and the manifold aspects of his country, 
is not read at all by them. In the literary sense 
he is almost a foreign author in Flanders itself. 
The Flemish authors prefer to be appreciated first 
by their own people, to lift them up to a higher 
intellectual level. They are contented to forego in- 
ternational fame and consequent material advant- 
ages. It is worth pointing out, however, that the 
Flemish-reading public is not so small as com- 
monly supposed. Flemish and Dutch being practi- 
cally the same tongue it numbers about ten mill- 

And finally, the Flemish authors claim artistic 
Justification for the use of their mother tongue. 
"Why do we write Blemish," says Prof. Vermey- 
len, "we, who, all of us, could just as easily com- 
pose a facile essay in E^ench? Because we feel 
that our language is an inner necessity of our 
art. One could ask just as well: Why do you 
write at all? We spoke the Flemish tongue in our 
father's home with the mother who reared us; 
thru the medium of this language she gave us all 
that she could give us. This language was bom 
at the same time as our thoughts, and it can 


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nerer be erased from our IndiYiduallty. Our pas* 
tures and our woods, all our evenings and morn- 
ings with their meadows and clouds are painted 
with the very colour of our Flemish words; they 
are surrounded with the same imponderable at< 
mosphere; each word we pronounce links us more 
intimately with the very earth of Flanders from 
which we grew. Who can explain the love for the 
mother tongue? We find in this language so many, 
so many unexplainable things, far remembrances 
and harmonies, all rooted in the deepest intimacy 
of our "self. The simplest things as the highest 
can only be adequately and organically expressed 

in our own mother tongue And, when a 

deeper force stirs our souls — an echo, no doubt, 
of our own loves and tears — ^but also an angelic 
foreboding of a mysterious and more perfect life, 
and when we want to find sounds to express that 
highest emotion that men have called "God," then 
again rise from the depth of our being the sounds 
of our own tongue, which have absorbed the secret 
life of our purest desires. So long as there are 
some poetjs in Flanders who feel this, while 
writing down the potent words of their forebodings, 
O my tongue, whether you be official or not, you 
can not disappear, for you are part of the highest 

These reasons lay bare the deeper roots of 
the social, racial and artistic impulses which con- 
firm the Flemish modem authors in the use of 
their mother tongue. They aspire to be both apos- 
tles of their culture and unrestricted artists, and 
if no wealth is to be derived from their publica- 
tions, the purity of their motives protects them 
against the commercialisation of literature with its 


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consequent lowering of standards, the scourge of 
the literature of many a greater nation. 

The revival of Flemish literature, after three 
hundred years of relative lack of productivity, be- 
gan almost a century ago. National and racial con- 
sciousness had almost died out in Flanders, "the 
battle-field of Europe," torn as it was by the guns 
of all nations, worn out by neverceasing religious 
strife, made economically powerless by unjust and 
oppressive treaties. The Flemish tongue itself was 
decaying and despised by the higher classes, 
the only depositaries of intellectual culture, as an 
uncouth "patois." Of all the ancient splendour of 
Flanders remained but a faint memory. Flemish 
literature had fallen in to the hands of "Chambers 
of Rhetoric," where voluble graphomaniacs had en- 
throned the redundant commonplace and combined 
in their lame "poetry" all the characteristics of un- 
wieldy dullness and sententious mediocrity. Even 
painting, surviving so tenaciously in Flanders when 
other expressions of culture are withering, had be- 
come dryly conventional. Flemish life and Flemish 
art seemed nothing more than a pious memory of 
a dead past 

After the BYench revolution and after Napoleon 
had shaken the very foundations of old-time Eur- 
ope, a sudden increase of racial feeling burst forth. 
This was a nationalistic reaction against the inter- 
nationalist dreams of the "saviours of the human 
race" of the 18th Century, — which still underlies 
the present national movements in Poland, Ireland, 
Bohemia, the former "Italia irredenta," Hungary, 
etc. Flanders had suffered for centuries too deep- 
ly from the domination of various oppressors not 
to feel the need of racial reconstruction. And it 

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was from this need that the Flemish moyement 

During the Napoleonic domination French was 
proclaimed the official language of the country, 
which it had in fact become long before that time. 
After Waterloo, from 1815 till 1830, Belgium and 
Holland, united, formed the Kingdom of the Neth- 
erlands. Dutch became now officially the tongue 
of the land and the Flemings had the benefit of be- 
ing governed in a language similar to their own. 
But the uneducated mass believed Dutch to be as 
alien a tongue as German or English and, since 
deep ro<yted religious and commercial conflicts di- 
vided North and South, the advantages of the union 
with Holland proved illusory. The Flemish Catho- 
lics saw in Protestant Holland a danger for their 
faith and the majority joined whole-heartedly in 
the anti-Dutch revolution of 1830. French influence 
was again predominant. The Belgian revolution 
was, in a sense, a consequence of the French revolt 
of 1830, which brought Louis-Philippe to the throne. 
It began in Brussels with the singing of the "Mar- 
seillaise" and followed closely the French pattern 
and its aspirations to a bourgeois-kingdom. And 
still more was the sympathy for France aroused 
when a French army re-enforced the rebels and 
drove the Dutch from Antwerp. One of the very 
first acts of the Belgian Congress of 1830 was to 
proclaim French again as the official tongue, while 
Flemish seemed now definitely crushed out of ex- 

It was then that the Flemish movement began, 
another episode in the revival of the down-trodden 
races of Europe, which had so potent an influence 
upon the history of past century. It was conceived 



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then, on Its negative side, as a reaction against 
foreign and especially French culture, on its posi- 
tive side as the rebuilding of a real Flemish culture 
upon the tradition of old Flemish racial splendour. 
The first leaders, J. F. Willems, Blommaert, Ser- 
rure and their followers were scholars, versed in 
the history of Flemish letters, who brought to light 
again its long buried treasures. They joined hands 
with a few poets: Ledeganck, Pr. van Duyse, Reus, 
Nolet de Brauwere and others. Their poetry was 
above all a clarion call for a national revival. They 
were apostles of a racial faith, still highly romantic 
and based upon a sense of reverence for ancestral 
greatness more than upon the painful present needs 
of their people. The artistic quality of their work 
was subordinated to the racial appeal, much in the 
same way as the productions of the Irish writers 
of the same period. 

For a few years the Flemish revival was limit- 
ed to these scholarly pursuits and literary exper- 
iments, but soon it branched out in two directions: 
political organization and popular literature. The 
authors who brought the Flemish movement to the 
masses were: the improviser in verse, Prudens 
van Duyse, a prolific author of effervescent facil- 
ity, to whom, however, the careful excision and 
chiselling of a poem were alien; K. Ledeganck, 
whose poem "The three Sister-Cities" sings the 
glorious past of Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp and 
loaths all imitations of foreign customs and tongues; 
Theod. van Rijswyck, a song writer of sprightly 
wit, the "B^ranger of the Flemings." 

But none of these was ever so completely the 
idol of the Flemish people as Hendrick Conscience, 
the author of a hundred novels "who taught his 



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people to read." He was the son of a BYenchman 
and of a Flemish mother, but the Flemish blood of 
his mother proved the most powerful inheritance 
he received. His novel "The Lion of Flanders" be- 
came the bible of the militant Flemings. It paints 
the times of glory and bloody violence when the 
bare-breasted burghers of Bruges routed, in the 
fields of Courtrai, the masses of the cuirassed 
French chivalry, who disdained so completely their 
opponents that they had fastened brooms at their 
lances "to sweep Flanders clean of dirt." Besides 
his numerous historical novels he produced ingen- 
uous and sentimental sketches of the Flemish 
folklife, which remain his best title to glory. His 
works were translated into a number of languages 
and enjoyed an international fame during the sec- 
ond half of the 19th century. Other novel writers 
came to his assistance in his patriotic task of 
giving the Flemings good books in their tongue; De 
Laet, Sleeks, Van Kerkhoven, etc. And soon, in- 
cited by the driving power of nationalism, poets 
and prose-writers arose everywhere in Flanders 
while the Flemish movement registered its first 
political triumphs. 

After this first period of Romantic and nation- 
alist poetry, a reaction began against the high- 
sounding rhetoric, the stilted language and the 
magniloquent or lachrymose improvisations of the 
Romantic poets. This movement, essentially "Par- 
nassian" in its preoccupation with form, was start- 
ed by some "simple" poets, who wrote with great- 
er sincerity and directness about less pretentious 
subjects: G. Antheunis, Vict, de la Montague and 
the dexterous but painfully mediocre Jan Ferguut. 
Gradually the pamassian current gained force and, 
with the early work of Pr. van Langendonck and 



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with Pol de Mont, the then rather provincial atmos- 
phere of Flemish letters was refreshed by fragrant 
breezes from other EXiropean literatures at that mo^ 
ment dominated by the Parnassian tenets of poetry: 
— restraint, effacement of the artist's personality, ob- 
jectivity of vision, perfection of sculpturesque form. 

Pol de Mont, a wide-open mind of international 
sympathies, sensitive to all currents of modem lit- 
erature, was, besides Gezelle, the first poet in Flan- 
ders whose only ideal was beauty of thought, feel- 
ing and form, "poetry for poetry's sake," instead 
of poetry in the service of racial or social theories. 
The eminent Danish historian of literature, Georg 
Brandes, wrote of his poem "The Children of Men," 
that it was "a poem which, by the grandeur of its 
style and energy of its invention, rises to the rank 
of Byron's biblical poetry and of Leconte de Lisle's 
poem3,'" and farther: "There is grandeur in it 
which surpasses Milton's treatment of biblical 
legends," De Mont's range is wide: he has written 
novels and verse, lyric and epic; criticism and stud- 
ies on history of painting, on esthetics and poetical 
theories. His manifold activities prepared the ad- 
vent of the modem school. In the early 80 's he as- 
sociated, in Louvain, with the French-Belgian in- 
surgents against traditional poetry, with Verhaeren, 
Gilkin, Giraud, Max Waller, and with Albrecht 
Rodenbach, the Flemish poet and leader who died 
at twenty-six. From the enthusiasms of his youth 
there remained in him an aspiration towards the 
renewal of literary forms and, in later years, he 
always acclaimed generously every new talent. 
Yet the modem Flemish literature was originated 
by a new group of writers without his direct inter- 

Around the monthly "Van Nu en Straka," gath- 

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half of tte IStk 
to kis 

tj tbo dfi¥tBS 
vkno tbe 

After tMs first 
mli«t poeCrr* 

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with Fol 4e IfoBt, the then rather provincial atmo«« 
phera of Fleoiiah letters was refreshed by fragrant 
breeses fraoi other Koropean literatures at that mo^ 
by the Parnassian tenets of po<dtryi 
at of the artist's personality, ob^ 
jectlTttir of Tislon, perfection of sculpturesque t^rm. 

Fi4 de Mont, a wide^pen mind of international 
sympathifis. sensitiTe to all currents of modern lib 
ermtore. was, besides Geselle, the first poet in Flan« 
ders whose only ideal was beauty of thought, f««l^ 
ing and tarm, lioetry for poetry's sake/* Instt^d 
of poetry in the service of racial or social theorl<di. 
The eminent Danish historian of literature, 0<dorg 
Braadea, wrote of his poem "The Children of Men/' 
that It was "a po^n which, by the grandeur of Its 
style and energy of its invention, rises to the rank 
of Byron's biblical poetry and of Leconte de Ltile'e 
poems,"* and farther: "There is grandeur In It 
which surpasses Milton's treatment of blblleal 
legends," De Mont's range is wide: he has written 
novels and verse, lyric and epic; criticism and stud* 
ies on history of painting, on esthetics and poetical 
theories. His manifold activities prepared the ad* 
vent of the modem school. In the early SO*s he at* 
social ed. in Lou vain, with the rrenoh^Belgian In- 

luit^iry, with Verhaeren, 

ier, aiKt with Albrecht 

et iiihI leader who died 

iiHtuLHiiisms of hU youth 

uMpimtion towards the 

ami, ill later years, he 

UKty nvery new talent. 

lliGiaiiire was originated 

I without his direct inter- 

Van Nu en Straks." gath- 



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ered, in 1893, some young authors of modem ten- 
dencies, who set out with high ideals, cultural and 
literary, and gained general recognition in a few 
years. "Van Nu en Straks" was soon followed by 
a new publication ''Vlaanderen," which became the 
most important standardbearer of modem ideals in 
Flemish literature. It voiced also new aspirations 
in the Flemish movement. Prof. Vermeylen (Un. 
of Bmssels.) the intellectual leader of Young Flan- 
ders, in two influential essays — "Criticism of the 
Flemish Movement (1895) and "Flemish and Euro- 
pean Movements" (1900). — called upon his country- 
men to discard their oldfashioned and provincial 
Romanticism, to conceive their aspirations towards 
a higher national culture as an episode of the gen- 
eral European race-awakening; as the expression. 
In thought and acts and art, of strongwilled individ- 
uals, who no longer wished to remain "without 
roots" in their own people, but who aspired to 
grow up harmoniously from the very earth of their 
mother country. The ideal was no more to be 
"Flemings" exclusively, narrow nationalists, but to 
become "Europeans." In his conception, "Eur- 
opeanism" was neither an anemic pseudo-culture, 
an Arlequin-dress of motley patches, borrowed from 
discordant civilisations, nor the vaguely declama- 
tory adoration of the abstract" genre humain" of 
the French revolution. To be good (Europeans it 
is not at all necessary to destroy the specific na- 
tional culture of each people; for European culture 
is a composite of the very best and highest which 
each race has produced. 

To contribute their share to the European cul- 
ture the Flemings must then be Flemish before all. 
They must safeguard their individuality and their 
own art, but at the same time they must open their 


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minds to all what Is purest In other countries and 
judge their own achievements, not only by national 
but by International standards. In a word, he ex- 
pounded the substitution of an international out- 
look for one exclusively racial. In literature too the 
modem school aimed at creating a literary art, 
strongly Flemish, no doubt, but of international 
value and appeal. Around the initiators of the new 
movement soon were grouped all the younger Flem- 
ish authors. Among them the realistic novelists 
Styn Streuvels and Gyriel Buysse are austere art- 
ists; Herman Teirllnck and Andr^ de Ridder pro- 
duce stories of subtle psychology; while Prof. Ver- 
mieylen's "Wandering Jew" is a work of deep sym- 
bolical meaning, which, if translated into one of the 
leading European languages, would at once take its 
rank among the most outstanding productions o* 
modem prose. Among the poets Karel van de 
Woestyne writes plaintive and exquisite poems of 
ultramodern refinement; Constant Eeckels sings the 
mystical ecstasies of the Gross; ESdmond van OfTel 
publishes songs of delicate mood-painting. A score 
of other promising poets revealed their talent in 
the years preceding the war. Literary life is brisk 
in Flanders and both in French and in Flemish that 
country has produced works of significance in the 
literature of modem times. 

Gezelle, however, stood apart, a lonely figure, 
outside of any school in Flemish literature. Too 
personal, a product of nature, hardly of book-learn- 
ing, he realized almost in isolation his work of 
beauty, misunderstood and persecuted for many 
decades. "Guido Gezelle is the soul of Flanders" 
said Hugo Verriest, (Flemish orator and essayist) 
summing up the characteristics of his poetry, which 


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fully expresses the complex temper of the Flemingr» 
realistic and sensuous as well as mystical and full 
of reverence for the Beyond. 

Some artists rise above their surroundings and 
race and their creations are animated by a spirit 
universally human rather than racial. They do not 
seem to be bound by any of the ties invented by 
the literary determinism of Taine, race, environ- 
ment and epoch. Like much of the Bible their 
works become at once the common possession of all 
nations. Goethe's Faust is Man himself, with his 
relentless struggle between the yearning for knowl- 
edge of the critical intellect and the desire of liv- 
ing in simple happiness, rather than merely a Ger- 
man of 1800. Other poets, however, are synthetic 
expressions of their times and their people. Walt 
Withman's poetry is the truthful mirror of the gnrop- 
ing and growing, youthful, unformed and powerful 
American Democracy of the middle of past century, 
with its confused but high aspirations towards the 
widest horizon of human future, immense and free 
like the billowing plains of the West. In the same 
way Gezelle expresses Flanders and its traditional, 
mystical and sensuous people. And much of the 
charm of his work lies precisely in its racial flavor. 


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IL Guido Gezelle: The Man* 

The advent of the younger Flemish school in- 
ausrurated a period of decided broadening of liter- 
ary, national and ethical outlook. The Flemish 
movement became for the younger Flemings an in- 
spiration towards harmonious self-development at 
the same time as a social movement in favor of the 
neglected mass, ideals too lofty to admit of old 
fashioned enmity towards France. "We must be 
Flemings to become Europeans, and even citizens 
of the world" was the thought behind all their work. 
They aimed at racial emancipation, not for its own 
sake, but as the necessary basis for an all-inclusive 
cosmopolitan culture. In literature they aspired at 
creating superior art, letting each writer work out 
individually his particular vision of beauty. Besides 
this they had still another task: the unavoidable 
revision of the literary judgments of the preceding 
generation, the recognition of the real outstanding. 
Flemish authors of the past, measured no longer 
by racial sentiment, but by standards of purely es- 
thetic merit. 

It was a humble priest, Guido Gezelle, 
who was hailed as the uncrowned king of Flem- 
ish poetry. He had been long disregarded by 
the ofTicial critics because he was too individual 
an artist and did not write in the standard Dutch- 



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Flemish but in the West-Flemish dialect. He was 
accused of being a "provincial/' whose dangerous 
freedom with language menaced the Flemish tongrue 
with a relapse into anarchy. In vain had he looked 
for any sympathy outside the small circle of Ills 
own students. The ofTicial world persecuted him 
because he wrote in Flemish and the Flemings 
themselves for years failed to understand his beau- 
tiful but unusual lyrics. For there existed an enor- 
mous difTerence in poetical conceptional between 
Gezeile and the poets of his time. The official 
bards produced a number of over-eloquent patriotic 
orations in verse in favor of the Flemish movement 
or sentimental poetry in ultra-romantic style, while 
Gezelle wrote almost as an individual word-artist, 
and put into practice all the theories of the modem 
poets long before the new forms of recent poetry 
had come into existence. He was a precursor, an 
innovator. He chose the simplest subjects and 
translated oftentimes the most refined and elusive 
impressions into a music faint and diaphanous. His 
very simplicity seemed superlatively absurd to his 
fellow poets schooled in the admiration of Victor 
Hugo, Byron and Schiller. The militant Flemish 
nationalists did not find in him a ready partisan, 
for his nature was all goodness and forgiveness and 
politics of any kind were distasteful to him. He 
lived in isolation the greater part of his life as a 
simple undercurate until his monotonous existence 
was enlivened by the enthusiastic reverence of 
young literary men impassioned for high culture 
and refined beauty. 

The only critic, in England, who was written 
at all extensively, on modern Flemish literature, 
Jethro Bithell, does not seem to have judiciously 
appreciated Gezelle. The pages he devotes to him 



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are not only inadequate but not even equitable. He 
attributes the recognition of the priest-poet largely 
to local political passions, decrying it as a kind 
of artificial glorification set up by the Roman 
Catholic Flemings. The facts, however, have quite 
a different significance. The first who acclaimed 
Gezelle, in Belgium, were the younger poets of the 
"Van Nu en Straks'' group, nearly all liberals and 
free-thinkers. It was also a liberal poet, Pol de 
Mont, who introduced the country curate and poet 
of genius to the Dutch public, in 1897, and the 
enthusiasm of the Dutch, largely protestants and 
non-catholics can, of course, not be attributed to 
the influence of the Roman-Catholics. Let us 
contrast with the opinion of J. Bithell the judg- 
ment of even so conservative a scholar and critic 
as Prof. Kalff, of the University of Leiden, who, in 
the 7th vol. of his weighty "History of the Litera- 
ture of the Low Countries" concludes as follows 
his estimate of Gezelle's value: "Many will honor 
Gezelle as one of the few great poets to whom our 
people can point in the 19th century; as one who 
has strengthened and refined our feeling for nature 
and opened our eyes to its beauty; as one who has 
painted the ordered color and the characteristics 
of the Flemish landscape and country life as no- 
body before him; as one who in his rich and mal- 
leable language expressed inimitably what struck 
his sensitive eye; as one who thru his splendid im- 
ages and thru the harmonious melody of his poetry 
stirs our soul to its very depth." The most cele- 
brated authors and critics of Holland as Willem 
Kloos, Fred van Eeden, Albert Verwey, are much 
more lavish with their praise than the reserved 
scholar Kalff. 

This glory came late to Gezelle. . He suffered 


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the fate of most individaal artists: he was not un- 
derstood. It was only at the end of his career that 
the tardy light of glory crowned his head, that the 
younger generation acclaimed him as the unequal- 
led master of Flemish poetry. But even after this 
belated recognition he remained, as before, the un- 
assuming and humble priest he had always been. 
His uneventful existence among the poor, the half- 
peasant, half working-man's class to which he and 
his parents belonged, was now drawing to its close. In 
one of his poems he describes the old house where 
he was bom in 1830, the year of the separation of 
Belgium from Holland. It was one of those cen- 
tury-old dwellings which abound in the fields of 
Flanders: the thatched roof of tawny gold, blacken- 
ed by rain in velvety and moss-grown patches, sag- 
ging low over the whitewashed walls, broken into 
a thousand capricious crevices; bright green shut- 
ters framing the small leaded windows and, all 
around the house the bronze and safTron tints of 
the autumn-leaves and the blaze of late red roses. 
As a gardner's son, he acquired early a love 
for trees and plants and that direct vision of 
nature, which we find in his work. He helped 
in the orchards, pruning and lopping and 
picking fruit, taking care of the flower garden, 
where all the varieties of flowers and Dutch or- 
chids burst forth in a riot of glaring color, a sen- 
suous delight for a Fleming, by temperament and 
tradition a painter. Between him and nature grew 
up an intimacy which city-bred poets, with their 
somewhat artiflcial ecstasies before the "Spectacle 
of nature,'' never attain. He sings even the most 
unnoticed plants and flowers, those that are for- 
gotten by the poets and discarded in favor of the 
symbolical splendour of roses and lilies. He was 
a loving child of his people, poor and humble, but 


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irreat by his love. In his soul echoed the tales and 
le£:ends of ancient Flanders. He knew its pictur- 
esque folklore, its dialects and history, its super- 
stitions and beliefs. His poetical training was 
scarcely bookish. He grew up from the very soil 
of Flanders, and when forced by the superabund- 
ance of emotion, he wrote poetry, he used quite 
naturally the simple but rich and musical 
dialect of West-Flanders. He had heard it 
spoken among the plain, hard-working people of 
his land. He loved its unvarnished directness, its 
expressiveness and wealth of color. The ofTicial, 
very Dutch-tinted Flemish was for him nothing 
more than a "literary language," artificial and cold, 
a dead rhetoric, a musty gathering of second-hand 
expressions and images. To express Flanders and 
to paint its nature, he made use of the character- 
istic Flemish words, which seemed, by some strange 
magic, to have absorbed the very smell and sound 
and color of the Flanders fields and orchards. 

One further circumstance was very potent in 
the formation of his psychology: Near to his na- 
tive hamlet stood that relic of the Middle Ages, 
Bruges, the city of mystic devotion. Many times 
his mother led him there to church and his soul 
grew impregnated with the mystic, mediaeval at- 
mosphere of the former "Venice of the North," fall- 
en from its secular glory. Even now the city is 
as it was in Gezelle's youth. The time-worn, grey 
houses lean wearily against one another, almost totter- 
ing with age and reflect their crumbling pinnacles 
in the dark and motionless waters of the canals as 
in black-marble mirrors. Mysteriously the stone 
bridges are reproduced in the depth of the water 
where slowly, as if in dream, glides an immaculate 
swan. And evenrwhere there are churches and con- 


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vents where lingers the dreamy peace of silent sanc- 

Bruges has remained an island of the Middle 
Ages in the ocean of restless modem life. Not 
only have the houses, the streets and the churches 
hardly changed since the fifteenth century, but the 
inhabitants have never been affected by the ideas 
and aspirations of modem times. The agitated sea 
of human changes foams and surges around this 
island without ever submerging it. Some dark, 
mystical shadow seems to fall from the towers 
upon the lives of those who reside at their feet, 
filling their souls with a weird terror of the Beyond. 
Nowhere has Roman Catholicism, in its most tra- 
ditional form, laid so strong a hold upon men. Nuns 
and priests form the majority of the population 
and in their renunciation of the joys of life, old 
Bruges seems to expiate its sins of centuries agro, 
its sins of sensuous pleasure and sumptuous wealth. 
Gezelle's native instinct of devotion, the inborn 
mysticism of the Fleming, awoke early in this at- 
mosphere. For him, all the skepticism of modem 
times remained powerless against the splendour of 
a religious past. His soul for ever resided in the 
"Moyen Age ^norme et d61icat." "The enormous and 
deUcate Middle Ages." 

We perceive thus in his early surroundings, the 
origin of the essential traits of his character and 
his work: ecstatic love for nature even in its hum- 
blest aspects; love for Flanders and its traditions, 
for the dreams of past generations, living still so 
potent a life in the tales, the language and the cus- 
toms of the poor folk and in the decaying beauty 
of Bruges; an all-pervading Mysticism, at last, in 
which was rooted his childlike faith. The harmon- 


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ious blending of these qualities, touched and yivifled 
by the mysterious light of genius, will make him 
a poet. 

Gezelle's parents had dreamed for him the Ideal 
calling for the son of a Flemish peasant the 
priesthood. And the boy looked upon this future 
as upon an honour, surrounded with awe and glory, 
whereto his faith drew him, triumphing over the 
hesitations of his humility. He was sent, when 
scarcely twelve years old, to the little seminary of 
Rousselaere. In exchange for some service as a 
doorkeeper, — "the humble will be elevated" — ^hewas 
given free instruction in philosophy as a prepara- 
tion for theological studies. In 1850 he went to 
the graduate seminary of Bruges, where he studied 
for three years, and In 1854, was made a priest. 
He taught for some time commercial subjects at 
Bruges but was soon transferred to the more con- 
genial position of teacher of the class of poetry in 
the seminary of Rousselaere. 

His teaching of poetry was as fresh and orig- 
inal as his very being. He wandered consciously, 
from the beaten path, from the painstaking explan- 
ation of a text, from the cold dissection of a poem, 
cut into small parts, labelled "methaphors," 
"thoughts," "climax," "moral," etc. A poem was 
for him as a many-colored butterfly, to be admired 
in the radiant sunshine, never to be pinned to a 
sheet of paper and examined by a magnifying glass; 
for so we only discover the ugly worm In that deli- 
cate winged flower. His admiration for beauty 
pervaded his explanations and soon he was sur- 
rounded by an enthusiastic group of students, 
whom he equally inspired and instructed. He per- 
fected their esthetic taste, taught them to see and 


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admire the splendour of the humblest objects, 
guided them, not exclusively among books and 
rules, but led them back to nature and to the hu- 
man heart, sources of all poetry. It is said that he 
pointed to flowers, the sky, dancing children and 
the quiver of leaves upon a sunlit wall and cried 
out: "These and Christ are my esthetic principles, 
my rules and my books." And lest we smile at this 
naivete of genius, let us consider how near he 
stood here to that great poet Saint BYancis of As- 
sisi. One of his students, Eug. Van Oye, has des- 
cribed his influence upon them: "You lifted us up 
in your mighty arms and upon your breast you 
warmed and woke our souls." EiVen now, after more 
than half a century, Hugo Verriest speaks with deep 
emotion in his lectures about the unforgetable les- 
sons of this unconventional teacher. He was for 
his students the Master, the hand with the magic 
keys, opening the gates of a new paradise of poetic 

But his very originality and power, his Influ- 
ence upon the students, as well as his writing of 
flemish verse, aroused the suspicion of his super- 
iors, who, with provincial narrowness of mind, re- 
proached him for not fitting into their Scheme-of- 
Things. As a disciplinary measure they soon trans- 
ferred him to a place where he could no longer in- 
fluence youthful minds, while the bishop gave him 
the charitable counsel of ceasing to write these 
verses in a despised idiom, for which so much dan- 
gerous enthusiasm was rising everywhere. But for 
Gezelle poetry was not an academic exercise, a 
clever achievement, which he could take up or drop 
at will, — ^it was his very life. Still, he tried to sub- 
mit — ^he tried during 30 years of agony and spirit- 
ual strife to silence this voice that sang to him. 


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Was he not a priest, bound by his vow of obed- 
ience? He was heart-broken, far from his students 
and the congenial surroundings of Rousselaere, em- 
bittered by the contempt with which his noblest as- 
pirations were met. His disgrace was a purely ar- 
bitrary act on the part of the Roman Catholic au- 
thorities and could not be justified by any fiaw in 
his conduct, for he had nothing of the strange de- 
meanor and waywardness popularly ascribed to 
genius. His was the over-confidence of an upright 
heart, which in its purity can never conceive how 
Philistinism and indolence, mediocrity and narrow- 
mindedness are allied at all times to ridicule and 
choke the noblest impulses of every mind which 
they can not dwarf. If he had been allowed to 
grow unhampered, to what heights would he not 
have risen? His ecclesiastical superiors exiled him 
to obscure places. From 1861-65 he was attached 
to an English seminary, became later undercurate 
in Bruges and Courtrai (Kortrijk) where he lived 
for 28 years. At the very end of his life, at sixty- 
nine, he was given at last a better position as di- 
rector of a nun's cloister at Bruges. "Grod forgive 
them, Flanders never will" (Gustaf Verriest). One 
morning seated by an open window, gazing into 
the sky of Flanders, which he had sung so many 
times, he passed away while whispering: *I always 
loved so much the gay whistle of the birds" .... 

His death was the sign of his triumph. The 
official world tried forthwith to wipe out the mem- 
ory of forty years of underestimation and persecu- 
tion. Bruges and Courtrai erected statues in his 
honor, the lower clergy accompanied him in great 
numbers to the grave, discourses in his praise were 
pronounced in the Flemish Academy. The under- 
curate to whom all promotion had been refused 


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was now glorified as a poet of genius and a martyr 
of his art. 

* * * 

Gezelle's first volume: "Vlaamsche Dichtoefenin- 
gen" (Flemish Exercises in Poetry), was published 
in 1858, and contains verse written before and dur- 
ing his professorship at Rousselare. It betrays the 
poet in the making in many lyrics altogether too 
traditional in form and impersonal in feeling, but 
also contains some of his most original and finest 
work, as, for instance, "Het Ruischen van het 
ranke Riet." (The Rustling of the restless Reed.) 
After his disgrace he refused to publish any of the 
occasional verse which he sent privately to his 
friends. His pupil, Hugo Verriest, printed, in 1862, 
"Gedichten, Gezangen en Gebeden" (Poems, Songs 
and Prayers), which are inferior to his early work. 
No allusion to his then disturbed life is found in 
this book, except, perhaps, some scattered lines of 
lamentation. In 1878, he published "Kerkhofblom- 
men" (Blowers of the Cemetery), written, however, 
much earlier (1852-58). During the long and dreary 
years that his poetical gift was dying, he worked 
strenuously in language-science. He gathered much 
interesting material for Flemish-Frisian and ESng- 
lish-German philology for De Bo's "West Vlaamsch 
Idiotikon" and edited a review devoted to Flemish 
folklore and philology "Loquela." His next volume 
of verse "Liederen, Eeredichten et Reliqua" (1880) 
reveals only a pale shadow of the former poet. In 1886, 
he printed a translation of Longfellow's "Song of 
Hiawatha," on which he worked for years, since 
he was in correspondence with Longfellow about 
the translation in 1877. 

About 1890, when he was sixty years old, the 
warm admiration of the new literary generation, 


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fanned the embers of inspiration still smoldering 
under the ash of years, to new flames. His best 
work is found In his first volume and in his last 
publications: "Tljdkrans" (The Crown of Time 
1893). "Rijmsnoer om ende om het Jaar" (A Gar- 
land of Rhymes all around the year, 1897); "Laat- 
ste Verzen" (Last Poems. 1899). 



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IIL Guido Gezelle, The Artist- 

Mr. Jethro Bithell in his volume of translations 
"Contemporary Flemish Poetry" translates scarce- 
ly four pages from Guido Gezelle, while one hun- 
dred pages are devoted to Pol de Mont. He ex- 
plains: "Gezelle's poetry baffles translation. It is 
a most delicate web in which all the threads clins 
to the rhyme; the threads of the idea might be 
taken over into another language, but the Flemisli 
rhyme, on which all depends, cannot be taken and 
so the structure of the translation falls asunder." 
The difficulties in translating Gezelle's elusive 
rhythms have, however, far deeper roots and are 
not so exclusively dependent upon the rhyme as 
Mr. Bithell maintains. Gezelle created a personal vo- 
cabulary, as — in a measure — every real poet does, 
an overrich tongue, popular and artistic at the same 
time and of a supple plasticity. And, to transcribe 
his vision, he sometimes invents new words for 
which no equivalents exist in another tongue. His 
poetry possesses something immediate like sun- 
light, rustling leaves and silvery spray; it is music 
and rhythm, — the immediate voice of the world's 
beauty — transcribed in words. He sets each let- 
ter, each vowel, each clear or darker sound chim- 
ing upon one another like a rain of diaphanous mu- 
sic from a string of bells in a cathedral tower. A 
change of a word or a syllable brings a note 


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strangely discordant in his music, so delicately 
poised, so organic in its unity. One feels that what 
he says could only be adequately expressed only 
with precisely these sounds and these Flemish 
words. Thought and feeling and "expression" are 
ONE in his work. His form is not like a close-fit- 
ting garment — ^a garment which might indeed be 
cut with infinite care, but still a garment, — it is 
the very flesh of his poem. It would be as impos- 
sible to translate Gezelle adequately as to trans- 
scribe music into a difTerent medium. Besides, the 
simplicity of his subjects must necessarily degen- 
erate into the common-place in any translation, be- 
cause the foreign language can not supply that 
subtle radiance which is all the smiling freshness 
Qf the original. Prose-translations are only given 
here and they will show, I am painfully aware, hard- 
ly more than grey outlines instead of the living 
colored picture. Here is, for instance, one of his 
poems, suggested by one of Beethoven's Quatuors. 
In the original the very words seem to acquire an 
unexpected radiance and a transparent fluidity imtil 
they dissolve in whispered sound. The rhyme 
offers no difficulty, but the vocabulary, alliterations 
and the rippling of sound can only be fully appre- 
ciated in Flemish: 

Once there fell a little leaf on the water 
Once there lay a little leaf on the water 
And flowing over the little leaf was the water 
And the little leaf was floating on the water 
And wibble-wabble-wallowing on the water 
The little leaf was rippling like the water 
As lissom and as fluid as the water 


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And blue and blank and greenly blinking was the 

The little leaf laughed and laughing was that water 
My soul now was that little leaf and that water 
The liquid tinkle of two harp-strings was that water 
And ethereal in blue shimmer and in that water 
So I lay in the limpid Heaven of that water 
The deep blue radiant Heaven of that water 
Once there fell a little leaf on the water 
Once there lay a little leaf on the water. 

In the original this poem, written in 1859, has 
no punctuation of any kind. It will scarcely satisfy 
those who look in poetry for abstract "ideas," for 
''meaning," for it is one continuous flow of rippling 
music and quivering color, a delicate wimpling of 
playful sunbeams on a translucent brook. But as 
an impressionistic and musical mood-painting it is 
strangely "modem." 

In most of his work Gezelle is indeed a most 
remarkable precursor of the new tendencies in Elur- 
opean literature. Decades before Verlaine had 
ruled "De la musique avant tout chose," he wrote 
poems in a rhythm purely musical. As for individ- 
uality of vision and diction, — ^the fundamental dog- 
mas of all modem art, — ^he possessed both instinct- 
ively. Guided only by his artistic sense, without 
connection with any poetic school, he discovered 
and applied all the other tenets of modem Euro- 
pean poetry: originality of image and rhyme, in- 
troduction of new poetical terms, freedom of 
rhythm, until he almost wrote free verse and, in 
some instances, prose-poems; independence of 
time-worn rules and restrictions. If modem poetry 
claims as its principle the bringing out of the in- 


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dividuallty of the poet, no longer fettered by tra- 
ditional forms; if freshness of vision and sincere 
novelty of diction are the necessary prerequisites 
of every work of art, then Guido Gezelle has a 
right to the name of "modern poet." His poetry is 
"essentially modem in the white heat of its ecstasy, 
in the almost unconscious magic of its rhythms, in 
the quivering tenderness of its feeling." (J. Bithell). 
In some respects, however, Gezelle difTers wide- 
ly from the last as well as from the present poetic 
generations. He is a simple-minded believer and 
reveals not even a faint suggestion of the religious 
unrest of modem times. He is no individualist, no 
analyst of the ever-shifting fluctuations of his "ego" 
like so many of the modern poets. He is no subtle 
observer of strange mental phases. His poetry is 
a song for the pure of mind and heart, for those of 
"good will," a song of spontaneous naivet6, and yet 
highly artistic. His is not Maeterlinck's painfully 
minute observation of varying moods, which, like 
rare flowers of an hour, flU the dusky rooms of his 
consciousness with an enervating fragrance, whis- 
pering in the faint melody of a vague and plaintive 
song. He is the poet of the open air and the gold- 
en rustling wheatflelds, the poet of the sensuous 
communion with the earth, the trees and the plants, 
of the mystical communion with God, who animates 
the visible world and holds it in his direct pater- 
nal care. His outlook is not limited by any ego- 
tism. He possessed qualities infinitely more prec- 
ious than intellectualism: an all-embracing love for 
the visible world and the divination of the mystical 
secret beyond reality. His picturesque words 
smell of the ground, the dew and new leaves; they 
speak of tree and shrub, of simple flowers; they 
imitate the dancing sing-song of children, whose 
voices sound silvery in the evening; they echo the 


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nightingale and the capricious babbling of brooks. 

What distinguishes Gezelle's lyrics is, in the 
first place, their realism. They sprang from close 
and ever fresh observation of real nature, from a 
life among the hard-working peasants. He never 
sketches artificial visions of a conventional coun- 
try, seen thru the eyes of other poets, literary rem- 
iniscences of pastorals, vaguely Virgilian. Nothing 
is easier, in nature poetry, than to rhyme emp- 
ty imitations with freedom, fluency and flnish. How 
many poets and poetasters bring us, under pretext 
of describing the pageantry of Spring and Autumn, 
nothing more than an eternal repretition of stereo- 
typed phrases about flowering meadows and sweet- 
singing birds, woven together laboriously at the 
desk, the windows closed and the fragrance of 
flowers replaced by the smoke of a cigar! Work 
your way, if you can, thru these mountain-slides of 
polished rhetoric, musty and dry repitions of con- 
ventional feelings, which leave in the mouth a taste 
of ash: 

Vallons d^licieux, fratche et riche verdure, 
Bondissante cascade a T^temel murmure, 
Doux pr^s, riants coteaux, magnifiques vergers, 
Par^s d'arbres en fieurs, rivaux des orangers. 


The essential shortcoming of this false-ringing and 
empty pseudo-literature consists in its lack of di- 
rect observation: The poet has seen nature only 
thru his literary reminiscences, pale copies of un- 
natural originals, sometimes, still blurred by the 
vagueness of an artificially aroused "sentiment." 

It was to this all too common type of easy 
writing that Verlaine alluded "Que ton vers soit la 


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bonne aventure, qui s'en va fieurant le lys et le 
thym . . . . et tout le reste est litt^rature!" Lit- 
erature in this sense is opposed to sincerity and 
Indicates the lifeless productions of this peculiar 
perversion of mind, which prevents so many writ- 
ers from observing nature independently and not 
thru the colored classes of the emotions which 
their readings aroused. The "literary" poet may 
believe iiimself sincere. Some comedians even be- 
come so imbued with the emotions they represent 
that they actually weep, in reality, under the im- 
pulse of imaginary emotion. Direct observation and 
direct emotion, second hand observation and imag- 
inary emotion; these distinctions mark the abyss 
separating the poet by God's grace from the clever 
versifier of ingenuous imitations. But Gezellesees. 
Bven his weaker verse has unmistakable qualities 
of direct observation, of scrupulous truth. Nature 
is not for him an obligatory theme for rhetorical 
exercise; not the background for his dreams, as 
with Shelley, who transformed reality into splen- 
did but visionary landscapes. Gezelle is a man 
"For whom the external world exists." He paints 
it with patient precision and striking veracity. 
Read, for instance, this description of a peasant 
working in the field: 

The Spade. 

"How does this spade thus gleam to me, when 
you, O Peasant, bending your wiry neck, and slow- 
ly backward stepping, upturn, now here, then there, 
God's field." 

"The sunshine follows you step by step and 
throws upon your glittering spade, « while deep you 


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sigh and stoop and bend, the fiery glare of her al- 

"And delving in this sparkling flame, your ever 
busy steel again turns up the earth and sweeps the 
arrows of flashing sunlight back to me." 

"There gush up from the swarthy ground so 
many beams of blinding light around your spade 
that it almost seems an image of the fearful light- 
ning of the Lord." 

"But no! The doves, they know so well: that 
play of a spade and a game of light this lightning is, 
and their whirring wings pursue you while you 
labour there." 

He describes the doves in the courtyard of a 
Flemish farm: 

"Out! There they come all, out they are flap- 
ping, fluttering then with all their feathers; echo 
rattles far and wide, and the sky's deep blue hovers 
grey with whirring wings. Three times they turn 
round and three times back, so flies the flock, 
swiftly on, till where it can find something to pick; 
then, hark: their rustling plumes all peeping and 
as if their wings were sleeping in the languid, lan- 
guid slide, so they glide now here below, and .... 
before their little red feet touch the earth, all airy 
straws, chaff and dust and down and motes puff 
away from under their beating wings." 

Or the restless leaves of the "Checkered pop- 
lar trees" a poem, as impressionistic as any mod- 
em work: 

"White as wool and green together heave the 
checkered poplar leaves. Ever awake like a tick- 
ing clock, they wibble-wabble to and fro, from 


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above all a shimmer of green, milk white, inmacu- 
late from below. Unpeacable they quiver and os- 
cillate in the capricious dance of a fitful breeze. 
Alternating up and down wave the leaves like a 
bird's feather. High in the air gleams a flock of 
doves feathered white and grey like checkered 
poplar leaves." 

However exact and tangible in vivid observa- 
tion, Gezelle is not a mere realistic painter, who 
reproduces nature coolly and dispassionately, with 
photographic precision. He feels that his soul is 
bound with thousand links of sympathy to all that 
exists, even to the humblest objects and animals. 
He pities the chirping sparrows, "God's dear spar- 
rows" as he calls them, when snow decks the field 
where they found their daily grain; he pities the 
thistle "poor thistle no man's friend;" he pities the 
hawthorn, imprisoned among heaps of rank-smelling 
barrels near an oil-factory: 

The Hawthorn. 

"That humble old hawthorn there, despised 
and uncomforted, buried amidst the barrels of the 
oil-factory, he knows: It is Summer now; and 
would he, would he not blossom, now that all that 
flower is blooms in glory?" 

Piled up all around him are barrels, barrels, 
which sweat out ranky oil and stink. And chim- 
neys too, from, the roof of the oil-factory gush over 
the tree nothing else than bitterness and smoke. 

And yet, blossom he will and shall there, and 
turn, in joyful offering, toward the sun, the glad- 
ness of his heart: for only once a year can sum- 



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merlight rejoice him. Let him then gladly flower 
in the prison of all these barrels there! 

He blooms and is dressed up in white garlands, 
on either side; an hoar-frost of shivering flowers 
hides his crumpled slanting branches; the little 
bees I see that sip pure honey in these cups, inside 
the blossoms and out, inside and out again." 

He loved the trees like living beings and, in 
many songs, he deplores their sufferings at the 
hand of man. And, — ^notice! — ^the reason for this 
pious feeling is that "God's hand lives in their 
trunks." And that God gave us eyes: "to discover 
Him in the glorious pageant of the trees." This 
note points to the mystical reasons for his love for 

"Have pity for the trees and leave their bark 
uninjured; protect them against the pain of biting 
wounds of nails! No pitiless harsh man may tor- 
ture them to death. Give freedom to the Creator's 
hand which subsists in their trunks." 

Gezelle's sentiment for the life of simple 
things and animals is also found, in a similar de- 
gree, in one of the most gifted of modem French 
poets, Francis Jammes. Both poets have a com- 
mon hatred for highly elaborated "literary" lan- 
guage. Jammes expresses what Gezelle could have 
said: "My God You have called me among men. 
Here I am. I suffer and I love, I have spoken with 
the voice which You have given me. I have writ- 
ten with the words which You taught my father 
and my mother, who transmitted them to me." Like 
Gezelle Jammes is a believer, a Roman Catholic, 
and lives likewise in a village, away from the noise 
and the smoke of the cities. The same simple and 



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loving vision of nature inspires their songs: every- 
thing on earth is beautiful and living, — God's light 
glows thru all creatures like a lamp's shimmer be- 
hind blurred window panes. God is near to them. 
A confident familiarity with things divine pervades 
their humble life. And a tender sense of sympathy 
for plants, shrubs and animals is one of the virtues 
of their Franciscan soul. Jammes prayed to pass 
into Heaven with the asses: 

et faites que, pench^ dans ce s6- 

jour des &mes 
sur vos divines eaux, je sois pareil aux &nes 
qui mireront leur humble et douce pauvret^ 
k la limpidity de V amour ^temel." 

Their mysticism is not a succession of super- 
sensuous visions as with Blake, but remains realistic 
in character and does not disdain the lower forms 
of life. When Jammes' dog died, the poet prayed 
for him: 

Ah! faites mon Dieu, si vous donnez la 

de Vous voir face a Face aux jours d' 

faites qu' un pauvre cMen contemple face 

& face 
celui qui fut son Dieu parmi 1' humanity." 

Gezelle prays that the sparrows be spared the 
rigours of the Winter-frost: 

"White lies the snow now everywhere, so white 
as were't a shroud. How will God's dear birds find 
and bare their daily bread? They twinkle and 
they chirrup loud, they seem in peace to saunter 
. . . O Lord! Spare Thy feathered folk the harsh- 
ness of the Winter!" 

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If Gezelle and Jammes have no broad outlook, 
no universal sympathies, no diversity of outside in- 
terests; if their minds do not seem to embrace a 
wide circle of ideas, if they are narrowed down to 
their own land and life, they gain in intensity of 
nature-vision, in flaming heat of prayer what they 
lose in breadth and universality. One would say: 
they gain in height. If their vision does not stretch 
out horizontally to the frontiers of the world and 
the mind, it climbs higher, nearer to God, it des- 
cends deeper into their own hearts and into the 
life of all which surrounds them. They make hum- 
ble things stand forth in undreamed-of splen- 
dour; they touch the plain sights and sounds of 
nature with the vivifying rod of universal life. They 
love with an almost pantheistic passion the beauty 
of the external world which bears everywhere the 
revealing imprint of God's hand. Jammes des- 
cribes Orthez, Gezelle describes Flanders. But one 
rose evokes all summer and in a small shell one 
hears, imprisoned, the choir-voices of all the seas 
and their immensity. And so they contemplate 
universe and heaven within the daily simplicity of 
their surroundings. They are mystics and yet hu- 
man to the core. The ever-changing aspects of the 
earth are to them a sensuous delight. 

Gezelle's art reveals an exceptional susceptibil- 
ity to the impressions of ear and eye, and even an 
indulgence in the pleasures of sense-perceptions. 
He is finely scrupulous in the noting of nature 
sounds in all their varying shades. The more sub- 
tle distinctions of his sound imitations are neces- 
sarily lost in translation and can only be fully ap- 
preciated in the original language. He listened at- 
tentively to the separate melody of each instrument 
in the symphony of nature: the drowsy croaking 
of the frogs; the fire-spattering chirruping of the 


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exultant sky-lark; the sepulchral yawl of the owl; 
the sharp laughter of the wood-pecker; the buzz- 
Inir hum of the wasps; the shrill insistent crepita- 
tion of the grass-hopper's screak; the whirring 
wings and the cooing of the doves; the astonished 
cackle of the hens; the ever-changing warbling and 
ululation of the nightingale in the langourous after- 

The Nightingale. 

Where hides this loud-voiced singer now, which 
I rarely see, but joyfully hear, concealed in blos- 
soming bough, this May-day morning clear? 

Where does he hide? No bird I see. But I 
hear quavering, quavering the melody that he mer- 
rily weaves: It echoes in lanes and leaves. 

So sits and sings a man in delight, early morn- 
ings, on the loom, to twine from good woof, cloth 
winding and wide and linen long and fine. 

And a bird there sits in the summer cool, and 
throws out from his rustling stool of green leaves, 
in the shade, his thousand-colored thread. 

Hark! Lissom, light and loud in his voice, how 
deep do life and lust rejoice, as from the depths re- 
sounding of thousand pipes and organs! 

Now he chirrups fine, then carols loud and 
sound then spouts and gurgles out, as water bub- 
bles, clear chiming bells, rolling from roofs in wat- 
er wells. 

Now tell! How clicks his sprinkling sound, as 
when in a marble cup, unbound, garlands of pearls, 
Kill A KKnkinfir innan frnm thti at.rine. are tinkline." 

when m a marnie cup, unoouna, garianas oi peans 
blue blinking, loose from the string, are tinkling.' 

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Not less felicitous in exactness is Gezelle in 
noting colors and shades in nature than in the des- 
cription of the sounds of the woodland. His intense 
color vision betrays the pictorial instincts of the 
Fleming, which for centuries triumphed in the var- 
ious Flemish schools of painting since the time 
that Jan van Eyck, in Bruges, invented oil colors. 
The air of the plain of Flanders, unceasingly swept 
by the winds of the sea, is saturated with moisture, 
refracting the light and spreading an ever-varying 
iridescence over the landscape. Taine, in his "Phil- 
osophie de V art" has pointed out the importance 
of the Flemish landscape in the formation of the 
Flemish artists: "Outside the cities as inside their 
walls, everything is a subject for painting; one has 
only to copy. The general green of the field is 
neither crude nor monotonous; it is varied in shades 
by the divers degrees of ripeness of foliage and 
plants, by the varying thickness of their masses 
and by the perpetual changes of the moisture and 
the clouds. It finds its completion or its contrast 
in the blackness of the storm clouds, which sudden- 
ly break in showers and in downpours; in the vague 
blueish network of mist hanging over the back- 
ground of the horizon; in the glittering tinsel of 
the light, imprisoned in the fiying vapors, some- 
times in the dazzling satin of a motionless cloud, 
or some sudden cleft thru which the azure of the 
sky gleams. A sky so full of color, so varying, so 
suited to harmonize, change and bring out all the 
tonalities of the earth and the fields is a real 
school for colorists." 

Succeeding generations on the Flanders soil cul- 
tivated unconsciously the aptitude for color percep- 
tion and, by the combined experience of his ances- 
tors, the Flemish artist has become an instinctive 
colorist. This accumulation of acquired qualities 



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manifests itself in all Flemish writers, whether 
they express themselves in French or in Flemish, 
whether they follow the exuberant school of Rub- 
enB or the mystical tendencies of Memlinc, Van der 
Weyden or Petrus Christus. None of their traits 
are so distinctive and predominant as their sense of 
the exact outline and their pleasure in riotous col- 
oring, to which, in fact, they sacrifice rigorous 
methods of composition and the latin equipoise and 
harmony of construction. To take the nearest ex- 
ample, read this description from Camllle Lemon- 
nier's "Un Mftle": (A Morning). 

La laiteuse clart^ bientdt s' ^pandit comme une 
eau apr^s que les vannes sont levies. Elle coulait 
entre les branches, filtrait dans les feuilles, d^valait 
les pentes herbues, faisant lentement d6border V 
obscurity. Une transparence a^risa les fourr^s; les 
feuilles criblaient le jour de td,ches glauques, les 
troncs gris resemblaient h des prfitres converts de 
leurs stoles dans r encens des processions. £t petit 
k petit le ciel se lame de tons d' argent neuf. II 
y eut un chuchotement vague, ind^fini dans la ron- 
deur des feuillages Des appels furent sifla^s a mi- 
volx par les verdiers. Les bees s* aiguisaient, grin- 
caient. Une secou^e de plumes se mela kla palpita- 
tion des arbres; des ailes s* ouvraient avec des 
claquements lents; et tout d' une fois, ce fut un 
large courant de bruits qui domina le murmure du 
vent. Les trilles de fauvettes se r^pondaient k 
travers les branches; les pinsons tirellr^rent; des 
palombes roucoul^rent; les arbres furent emplis d' 
un 6gosillement de roulades. Les merles s' eveil- 
lerent k leur tour, les pies garrulferent et le som- 
met des chines fut rabot6 par le cri rauque des 

Toute cette foUe salua le soleil levant. Un 



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rais d' or pale fendit V azur, semblable k V Eclair 
d' une lance, L' aurore pointa sons bois rejailllsant 
en Eclats d' ^tincelles comme un fer pass^e sur la 
meule. Puis une illumination constella les hautes 
branches, ruissela le long des troncs, alluma les 
eaux au fond des clairi^res, tandis que des bu^es 
violettes rampaient au bas du ciel. Au loin, une 
lisi^re de futaie sembla fumer dans un brouillard 
rose. Et la plaine ^tait toute pommel^e d' arbres 
en fleurs qui, k chaque instant, s' eclairaient un 
peu plus." 

Gezelle's verse shows the same vivid and pic- 
torial precision the same sensitiveness to color and 
sound. He notices the paths of the wood in au- 
tumn, tiger-skinned in fallow and brown-yellow 
spots by soaking rain; the blue-cheeked cloud, half 
white around its borders; the tired yellow-green 
meadows by the end of the summer; the rhythmic 
sweep of the glittering scythe thru the swath; a 
water-drop reflecting a thousand colored light; the 
spade of a delving peasant; the silver-grey willow 
trees, wetting their low hanging branches in a mir- 
roring brook; the light in all its changes from hesi- 
tating pallor to burning gold or to the tragical pur- 
ple of sunsets. 

Red is the color dominating in this poem: 


"Red is all that I see: one oven fire 
the West is, wherein the sun has sunk and set 
aglow the old moats of the world. No flaring, flash- 
ing fire; nothing but glowing red — and, thru the 
loose, drifting, clouds something like oozing blood, 



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or like Infinities of skinless body-parts of oxen and 
of steers, which, floating everywhere, fill with 
slaughterhouse carcasses the deep seas of the west- 
er world. The black hedges seem full of fiery eyes 
as of strange animals and undefined beings, which 
view me with a strange red stare, where I stand 
from head to foot plashed over with the oozing blood 
of the sun." 

Or this description of the trees in the autumn: 

Trees in the Autumn. 

"O trees, that wait your death sentence in many- 
colored gowns of autumn, and that dead and under 
;he spell of malediction will stand naked and black 
ill winter long! — O trees, how gorgeous, over-gor- 
reous is your variegated foliage, which dying, and 
n the flare of the sun is more splendid than living 
eaves! .... Some stand there respectably grey; 
ome stand there fallow and darker blue; some 
iand there as enormous poppies so fiery and so 
III of reddish glare. Some are there, chequered 
ad speckled with yellow-red and dark green leaves, 
-^ike a pile wherein the fire glows by night and 
cleps out thru dark stones. Blackberry red, and 
ir^-mould, and weaker maroon rests the foliage 
thte, with darker depths, pits black as jet darkly 
hUen between the branches. But, poplar trees, 
abie all is dear to me the tinsel of your pale and 
dyftr gold which brightens thru all the darker 
wodj ..." 


Bzelle's landscapes are the landscapes of Flan- 
ders! They are neither abstractly picturesque, re- 
posei and neatly trimmed like the setting of the 



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pseudo-classics, nor landscapes of hazy gold-mist 
like those of Poussin or Turner. They never ap- 
proach even the visionary lEdens, the dreamlike, 
vagueness of Shelley's scenery or the conventional 
cardboard setting of the Romantics: shadowy val- 
leys, foaming cataracts, rugged crags, dark pines. 
The Romantics do not describe directly the outer 
world; their landscapes are drawn merely as a 
back-ground to emphasize the mood of the poet, 
^thout roots in direct observation, they remain 
somewhat factitious in their forced conventionality, 
and could, without changes, be transported, at will, 
to any country of the tempei*ate zone. Gezelle's 
descriptions nt exactly only one part of the globe: 
the wind-swept plain of Flanders. They are recog- 
nizable, accurate and even minute. They are in- 
spired by the color, the sound, the fragrance, the 
light, the atmosphere of Flanders, by its mists and 
shadows, its hills and fields, by the manifold as 
pects of its sky. 

Some of his poems tell about the ancient leg 
ends of the people, tinged still with memories d 
the Grermanic Mythology: in the clouds he behol(^ 
the Weather-wives riding, the primitive conceptim 
of the battle between Winter and Summer is deir 
to him; and he narrates, in jesting banter, tie 
deeds of God Thor and St. Peter in Flanders. The 
old customs of his country inspire this lover of 
Folklore continually. Many of his verses posess 
the homespun qualities, the effortless rhjmiing of 
old folk-songs. He listened to the quaint Chlst- 
mas-carols, the old ballads, the love songs and the 
mystic hymns dating from the Middle Ages but 
still living in the Flemish towns and villages He 
loved Flanders in its external beauty as mu'b as 
in its language, customs and past, with an amost 



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sensuous love. He delighted in the smell of the 
earth and the leaves of the forest after rain; in 
the pulpy juiciness of sun-caressed fruit; in the 
lazy sultriness of noon; in the still pools where 
tmall spiders run in an almost imperceptible rip- 
ple; in the spell of soundless winter plains. He 
feasts his eyes on the blue fields of flax, the acres 
tf pale golden barley; on the slow-driving cloud 
tiasses silvered on the brim, in the endless sky of 
rianders. . He tastes the fragrance of the winds 
carrying a faint suggestion of the salty smell of 
tie near-by sea, or the perfumes of dying flowers, 
beavy in the dusky gardens. One would fancy that 
be is gifted with a kind of plant-like absorption of 
lature. To what an ecstacy of thankfulness he 
ciuld be lifted by the simple taste of ripe cherries! 

A Bunch of Cherries. 

"A bunch of cherries, child! A bunch of cher- 
ricg, child! Grown in the glow and the golden 
ligU of the summer! Full of squirting juice, full 
of tweet, full of sour, full of oozing juice, full of 
8 wetness! 

"^hey glittered in the branches, they called out 
when they grew: Pick us! pick us! Pick us and 
quenci your thirst. Ripe we are and shining!" 

Lo^-bowing they hung, swinging and waggling 
in the \vind, the soft warm wind of the summer. 

"Pi<k us, pick us, pick!" they called, and I 
picked tiem and they weighed so heavy: the bless- 
ing of G^ weighed upon them. 

"Tak\ and thank Him, who grew them, who 
let them Vipen. Thank Him, Thank Him. Thank 



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Look up to the sky. There He is, there is 

The eyes gleaming upwards as a bird that 
drinks and lifts its innocent little head . . . Thank 
Him . . . Thank Him . . . Thank Him . . . 

True as the poorest animal, true as the leaves 
and the fruit, true as the little flower, true as the 
grain of sand, thank Him! 

O enjoy them! It is so sweet, it is so sweet 
to press out the fruit that is full-ripe and to feel 
rising in the heart, joy and thanks! 

Learn that tongue that speaks with thousands 
of mouths, calling: ''Thanks to God, Thanks for 
light Thanks for light and for life. Thanks for 
the air and the light and the hearing and seeing 
and all! Thanks to God! 

A bunch of cherries, child, a glowing bunch 
.... Thank Him!" 

The yivid sensuousness of the Fleming is the 
source of his intimacy with nature, which, indeed, 
resembles in its violent love the pantheistic ador- 
ation of the primitive. He feels and describes the 
vague languors and discontent of the spring, when 
the chestnut trees are adorned with small white 
candles; the exaltation of the highest summer- 
glow; the silence of the wide shroud of tlie Win- 
ter, muffling and deadening the sounds of nature. 
He listens to the restless rustling and the T^hisper- 
ing of the winds of Flanders, to the sighing pop- 
lars, blurred with greyish fogs, marking the hidden 
roads of the plain. He seems, in a sense, to im- 
bibe the life of nature, to drink eagerly from the 
sources of the all-pervading joy of existence. 


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"There is, one would say, something of a satyr 
ill this Flemish curate, when he sits enraptured, 
hidden in the wheatfields, looking far over the bil- 
lowing cornfields, guzzling the spicy air and the 
fragrance of earth and fruits." (Kalff). 

"The Sun Arrows." 

Hidden deep in the ranky green of horsebeans 
and of growing wheatstems, how delirious is it then 
to lireathe and fill one's soul with new-bom life! 
And I would stand here, stay here steady, so long 
as the light would give me days! The sun sits 
high there, above my head, as lightning. The rain 
of glittering sparks bounds on; it is near noontide 
now. I bathe in wavering fragrance entrancing as 
from lilacs. 

The earth is dry, yet moist; beneath the fields 
is hidden still lusty strength which colors the fresh 
grown boughs and the fiowering fields everywhere. 
Now I can sit where my heart desires! The green 
is lulled in the quiet air. But the arrows of the 
sun do pierce me thru and thru and light here in 
my liml^ the violence of life, which streams from 
the depth of heaven. It gives me a strange delight, 
and now I feel liquid fire running thru my veins!" 

Gezelle's nature verses ring responsive to spon- 
taneous aAd unpretended feeling, to genuine ob- 
servation. They have a quality of native naivete, 
a truthfulness, which makes us visualise the poet 
behind his work: the simple-minded and devout un- 
dercurate, wtalking in the country, reading in a 
cloister garden, saying mass in his village church, 


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spying on the birds, participating in the amuse- 
ments of the humble. One feels how he was simple 
and forgotten, with no other earthly possessions 
than a breviary, a cross and an old greenish cas- 
sock. He lacks entirely that instinct for attitudin- 
izing which 80 strongly affected Chateaubriand, 
Baudelaire, Byron and Hugo. He does not pose as 
a "beautiful soul," but writes simply about his 
daily life, without false finery and, in general, with- 
out romantic "thrill." His reaction to nature 
would be best described as impressionistic, refer- 
ring especially to his lifelike exactness in noting 
concrete reality. His verbal innovations in Flemish 
poetry are bom of his constant care to transcribe 
what he saw and felt in picturesque and living 
words. Every one of his nature poems depicts a 
nook of Flanders seen in a mood. They are never 
artificial or bookish, never dusty and dry, never a 
spiritless mannerism, but naive, exactly and vividly 
realistic. He stands before a nest of blackbirds in 
a willow trunk and laughs in childlike joy, observ- 
ing the capricious gamboling of the young birds. 
He notes how the black letters of his breviary be- 
come red and gold when he glances at them after 
staring in the blinding glare of the sun. He notic- 
es the fiat pennies, the round spots of moss, green, 
fallow and yellow on the bark of trees or on the 
old stones of a bridge. 

"Without lies and without cheating, wild truth 
is what I desire!" he exclaimed, "and what I do 
not speak out, I do not have in me! Who shall 
dare to count this a sin? My heart and my soul, 
my song and my self, — ^it is all on the outside as 
it is from within: All lies there bare on my hands! 
Then away with the glittering lies of thoughts bor^ 
rowed from another! Mine you are not — Yours I 


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never shall be! Impersonal feelings . . I bid you 
farewell Go and travel!" 

His power of realistic description does not pre- 
vent the free play of his poetical fancy and often- 
times he clothes his impressions of nature in happy 
personifications : 

"The Cherry-Tree." 

The cherry tree in bridal robes, is glittering 
fair» for it is May-day now and he must go to a 

Every branch is like a poniard now, deep-hid- 
den, white, — from hilt to point, in a gleaming 
sheathe of flowers bright. 

With hoarfrost decked, his beauty shone in 
winter lands. A thousand times more beauteous 
now his blossoms shine! 

In wintertime his beauty was like a sculpture 
cold, image of death, strange and vain, as shadows 

No longer stands like marble cold nor ghostlike 
he — ^but he is all that is gay and sparkling: a living 

It is wedding day and Summertime.: The sum- 
mer maid awaits her bridegroom now, the glorious 
God, who will make her his chosen bride." 

But his healthful joy in creation was far from be- 
ing purely sensuous and instinctive. It was pointed 
out above how it was made sublime by a universal 



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love for all existing things. Gezelle listened not 
only with the ears of the body, saw not ezclusiyely 
with the eyes of the body, but listened with the in- 
ner ear of poets and mystics, looked with the eye 
of the seer: 

"When the soul is listening, all speaks a 
tongue that lives. Even the faintest whispering 
talks and soul-sound gives. All the rustling tree- 
leaves flutter and babble silvery and waves of pure 
streams murmur loud their ecstasy. Winds, mead- 
ows and clouds clear, white paths of God's holy Feet, 
whisper all and tell us the deeply hidden word, so 
sweet . . . When the soul is listening. . . " 

Nothing on earth is without a soul, and there- 
fore Gezelle approached every plant, stone and ani- 
mal with brotherly lo^ve and respect. He taught 
us, that, poetically speaking, nothing can be so new 
and fresh as the very objects we behold daily, the 
very things which, tired of their humble appear- 
ance, we have neglected while hunting for strange 
and rare beauty in the limitless lands of imagina- 

And because Gezelle perceived the "soul of 
things,'' because he felt the Creator behind the 
creature, the aspects of the world kept for him 
their original purity and beauty. It is given only 
to a few to live without their senses and their 
heart growing old and cold, and to remain always 
vivacious and responsive to all impressions, receiv- 
ing them with a kind of grateful wonder like child- 
ren do on each new morning of their existence. 

In this way the very mysticism of Gezelle was 
identified with his reverence for nature. His long- 
ing for the Beyond did not destroy or dwarf that 



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fullness of life that sang in his verses, but exalted 
it, because the humbleness of his daily existence 
was ennobled by a distant glimmer of the eternal. 

In life and art a perplexing choice seems imper- 
ious: we have to forego either the world, with its 
tempting beauty and its caressing happiness, or 
God and the joy of celestial aspirations. But for 
Gezelle this dilemna did not exist. He loved in- 
tensely both God and the world and reconciled the 
apparent contradiction between the sensuous delight 
in earthly beauty and the yearning for the eternal 
from the lofty point of view of the mystic. 


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IV* Guido Gezelle, The Mystic* 

In stating that Cruido Gezelle is a "mystic" 
poet, one risks misunderstanding. The writers and 
philosophers who have dealt with Mysticism betray 
in their very definitions how vague is its connota- 
tion, how uncertain its meaning. It is taken as a 
synonym, sometimes, for fantastic and visionary 
theories about religion, or for Neo-Platonism, or 
for Deism, for a poetical state of mind k la Bemar- 
din de Saint Pierre. It is applied indiscriminately 
to any of the various ways, — nimble fancy of poet- 
ical philosophers or inspired visions of saints, — ^in 
which man has expressed his dim or glorious con- 
sciousness of the "Beyond". Besides, the mystical 
ages have past, whatever hopes we may harbor for 
their revival! 

Modem mysticism has sadly degenerated, 
and in fact has become, in modem literature, 
nothing more than an intellectual state of mind, a lit- 
erary attitude, wherein modern esthetes indulge with 
a dilettante voluptuousness. Under their influence 
the vague term "Mysticism" is still more vaguely 
and inconsistently applied, till it designates now 
almost anything from mystification up to estheti- 
cism of cameleon-like variety. How many clashing 
theories are labeled with this everready word? How 
many a writer is baptized a "mystic" when he is 


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simply mysterious or symbolic, elusive in thought 
and form! 

However inclusive and elastic the defin- 
ition of Mysticism may be, it seems strange to 
classify together types so widely divergent in spir- 
itual atmosphere as William Blake, Ed. Schur^, 
Plotinus, Coventry Patmore, Maeterlinck, Hello, St. 
Francis, Edwin Arnold, Dante, the Buddhists, Mme. 
Guyon, Wordsworth, Meister Eckhart, William Law, 
Jan van Ruysbroeck, Villiers de I* Isle Adam, St. 
Theresa, the Verlaine of "Sagesse," the Misses 
Besant, Jacob Boehme, Thomas d. Kempis, the 
theosophists and so many others. 

"Mysticism" is a term designating spiritual ex- 
periences of a bewildering variety, not only differ- 
ent in degree, but even in kind. The aspiration of 
the Buddhists towards absorption into nothingness 
is essentially different from the Christian aspira- 
tion towards a full flowering life in God. What 
they have in common are certain practices of as- 
ceticism, used as means, however, to ends as wide- 
ly divergent as are life and death. The confusion 
is such that one might almost forgive the Philis- 
tine for calmly asserting that Mysticism is nothing 
else than brain-fever; for preferring the comfort- 
able notion of a conventional God for the average 
man to the glowing intensity and the God-intoxica- 
tion of the Mystics. For these reasons it is neces- 
sary then to indicate what is meant by "Mysticism" 

No doubt, the Infinite may be approached by 
the various roads which Plotinus enumerates in 
his "Letter to Flaccus": "That love of beauty 
which exalts the poet; that devotion to the One and 


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that ascent of science, which is the ambition of the 
philosopher; and that love and those prayers by 
which some pious and ardent soul tends in its 

moral purity toward perfection These are 

the great highways conducting to that height above 
the actual and the particular, where we stand in 
the immediate presence of the Infinite, who shines 
out as from the depth of the soul." 

If these are the manifold ways of approaching 
the Divine, still it must not be forgotten that there 
exist what the Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck 
has called "degrees of spiritual perfection" (Van 
de zeven Trappen). Those who stop at the first 
step can not be called real mystics. They do not 
contemplate the unity of God with the creation, but 
rather feel a vague apprehension of a possible sup- 
er-sensuous secret. They have a dim revelation of 
Ck)d thru an earthly emotion, thru the bodily shud- 
der of the fear of death, or before the beauty of 
sunsets. But to a true mystic God reveals himself 
directly in the pure light of the soul. His emotions 
of the Divine are not vague aspirations, an Un- 
known, which he fears, but a possession in which 
he exults, an embrace of celestial joy. Religious 
sentiment, apprehension of the unknown, "le vague 
& r &me," reverence for the pulsating rythm of na- 
ture are in themselves no mysticism. They repre- 
sent rather the eternal aspiration to higher life, 
inborn in man, which rationalism can starve but not 
eradicate. And not more are these writers mystics, 
in the true sense — D. G. Rossetti, Edwin Arnold, 
Huysmans, etc. — ^who, by sheer "will to believe" re- 
vived only the outward shell of mysticism and re- 
duced it to an artificial half-esthetic, half-religious 
feeling, an excuse for literature. This "attitude" 
carried to excess produces comedians of mysticism, 



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masquerading in frocks of vague Eastern sages, as 
Sar P^ladan. 

Among these interesting dilettanti Maeterlinck 
occupies a conspicuous place. His agnosticism has 
been mistaken, more than any other pseudo-mystic 
doctrine of late years, for the utterance of the 
flame-winged angels. And lo! His mystical doc- 
trine, — in so far as the silky tones of his meekly 
submissive vagueness reveal any consistent doc- 
trine! — is almost an electic anthology of two or 
three scores of writers on the subject. This 
does not lessen the artistic value of his early plays, 
which are not considered here. But his doctrine is 
not bom of real mystical experience; it is an "at- 
titude of mind''; it lacks the glow of deep-burning 

Mr. Canroy has pointed out (Publications of 
the modem Lfanguage Association) how we find in 
Gezelle, in rare cases however, the very same at- 
mosphere of the fear of death as in "L* Intruse," 
long before Maeterlinck began writing. In one of 
Gezelle's early poems: "The Child of Death," Death 
is coming into the house, perceived only by the 
dying child, gifted with the second sight which 
Maeterlinck attributes to those who die young. 
(Les Avertis — Tr6sor des Humbles). 

The Child of Death. 

There are some, who, in the lane of life, with 
scarce a crumb of bread, will go till in their oldest 
days, will live, in spite of Death. 

And there are some, whom this life itself throws 
from its joyful roads when scarce their travel had 
begun: the children, they, of Death. 


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Such a one I knew, and its mother, when she 
cradled it on her breast, sang and she said: *'My 
little child!"— It was false!— It was the Child 
of Death. 

It grew as a plant may grow, which never sees 
the sun: A lean and slender child it was and pit- 
eous as a reed. 

Observe it leaning against its house. It rests, 
now on one foot, then on the other one. It rests 
there against the wall. 

It stands there when the morning beams, and 
does not speak a single word, — or, may be it talks 
in a low voice, deep in its heart, and that, only God 
hears it. 

It likes to stand there most of all when the 
sun is about to sink, — a reddish ball in the sky, 
lurking, aglow, from under the trees, till it slowly 

Then it lifts his staring, wide-open eyes and 
allows them, over-heavy by pain, to weep the glit- 
tering tears, which nobody can understand. 

Then it limps away, and it looks, when it is 
ready to step within, for the last and oh! with so 
longing a look, while sighing . . . over the road! 

And when the wind rattles at the door, then 
slowly it turns around, comes back, and it shakes 
its head, and writes — ^in the ashes it writes then: 

So like a child in the evening, joyfully, while 
dreaming of its playmates it says: "O! That it 
be tomorrow now!" So it longs for Death. 

For Death is kin and friend to it; it knows her 


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livid hand; it knows her slow, slow step and her 
voice; it knows her spade and her land. 

She tarried, and it waited for her so long. Tet 
she came all at once, when it stood waiting at its 
accustomed place; where she found it, yearning for 

She came and she entered the house and it 
looked and followed her up, step by step; she went 
upstairs, it went upstairs; she lay down, it lay 
down; and she laughed and it laughed for her. 

And somebody stood there, who said: O! It 

laughs! It laughs! What strangeness came over 

it now? It did now what it never has done: our 

brother. O! God! it gets well? .... 

And another woman said then there: Ah! 
That was so strange a smile! So laughed, when he 
was going to die, my poor husband and he . . Ah! 

And fear came in the house and everybody 
shuddered and hastened and every one ran, now 
here, then there: and it tolled in the tower and 
now tinkled the bell. And candles were burning 
high and clear. 

And still ... a silence fell then, still . . and 
nothing moved nor stirred — ^for fear and shudder- 
ing reverence by the coming of God . . . 

And then whispered a low voice, when again 
they dared to speak: What is it going, . . . look, 
what is it going to do? What is it pressing there 
against its breast? 

Ah! — said then another woman, while pointing 
to the holy Cross: "Give it the Cross! For it is 


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going to leave ... It is going to die . . " And 
she wept .... 

Then it said, while it stared piercingly and 
closed, — something? — in its arms: "O! Dear Moth- 
er! Bless me with the holy cross!" And the 
woman had been dead for years! 

With its eyes half-open and its mouth half- 
closed, so it lay then and laughed then and stared. 
And many who saw it, wondered and said: "How 
weirdly like life is death." 

The peasant stood up for the slow toll, the toll 
of the bell for the dead. He reflected a while and 
lifted his head: "It is for the child of death." 

And one then sang, whom this life had thrown 
down, away from its joyful paths: "I hope in a 
better life than this life of death." 

But the note of death is exceptional in Gezelle 
and his mysticism does not consist in the evoca- 
tion of a weird atmosphere. Maeterlinck goes 
thru life haunted by a sense of mystery. The dim 
day of existence is, for him, still darkened by 
shadows falling from the Unknown, while for Ge- 
zelle life is radiance and joy. He participates in 
the almost enraptured happiness of the Mystic who 
has found his God and possesses him thru direct 
revelation. Gezelle's reverence for the Beyond is 
not made up of vague undetermined fears for sup- 
er-sensuous secrets. It reposes on the discovery 
of the unity of God and the being of soul and 
world. It is refreshing to read his canticles of 
gratefulness, his lofty jubilees, the passionate out- 
pouring of his love, after the dusky songs of Maet- 
erlinck, with their visionary strangeness and vague, 
measureless desire. In turning from Maeterlinck 


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to Gezelle we feel as If we stepped out from the 
mouldy and spectral chapels of gloomy cloisters 
into the refulgent summer of fragrant gardens, 
alive with blossoms and flowers, the transparent 
foliage dotted with red glowing roses and the per- 
fumed white silk of lilies. 

It is true that if the Mystic experiences joys 
which no other mortal knows, a foretaste of the 
perfection of the life everlasting, his existence is 
also frequently darkened by strange depressions of 
spirit. In Gezelle's work we find scarcely a trace 
of these moments of despair. His mysticism was 
pure love and therefore pure joy: 


"There are still joyful days in life! How few 
they be, still there are some of them. And gladly 
I would give up all and everything for one of these, 
my God, for a single one of these: When I feel 
Thee, possess Thee, carry Thee, and, losing my 
own consciousness, am one with Thyself, not any 
longer myself. When I call Thee: My God! And,, 
far from suffering and pain, repeat: "God! My 
God, my dearest Lord! 

O remain with me, Thou Sun of all clearness^ 
O remain with me, pierce me with ardent glow thru 
and thru. O remain with me. One single thing one 
only is the truth, — and all is lie but Thou. 

Thou art my consolation when all human con- 
solation is venom. Thou art my help when no one 
helps, but flies. Thou art my joy when all other 
joy is painful; the Hallelujah when everything 
weeps and sighs .... 


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What happens then to me in the wander of 
these moments, when my heart glows, my eyes 
burst forth in tears, till I, drunken with weeping, 
shudder to unconsciousness on the floor and disap- 
pear in a storm of love and happiness? 

Am I the one who weeps? .... Am I the one 
who in the tongue of the winds hear Thy whisper, 
my Jesus? Who listens to Thy voice in the voice 
of everything, however small it be, and perceive Thy 
own self in each flower? Am I the one who wish- 
ed for a thousand lives to lose for Thee and for 
every man on earth, who would so gladly die, in 
self-forgetfulness and with a radiant smile of joy?" 

For many mystics the external world is only a 
hindrance to spiritual life. The concentration of 
all the powers of their soul upon the mystical 
Union with God, by enraptured love and ecstasy, 
l)linds them almost completely to the despised ex- 
istence in this netherworld. All things of the 
•earth are transitory shadows. Deceptive and lying 
is their promise of happiness. The sensuous beauty 
is for many Mystics only a tempting sin, because 
it distracts them from the contemplation of visions 
of eternal splendour. Theirs is the jealous God of 
the hermits of Thebald. A deep chasm separates 
their bodily existence from the life of their souls 
W. Blake said: "I do not behold the outward cre- 
ation: to me it is hindrance and not action. It is 
dirt upon my feet, — no part of me" (The last Judge- 
ment). And he echoes the feeling of many lovers 
of the Inflnite for whom the visible world is only 
a symbol of a deeper invisible existence. 

However general a manifestation of Mysticism 
the hatred of the world and things human may be, 



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it Is no essential part of the mystical state of 
mind. The flame of love which burns indeed with 
ever clearer and ever higher flame in those elect 
souls who aspire to the contemplation of God, some- 
times reduces to ashes many earthly passions and 
pleasures; but in many cases, too, it purifies this 
very sensuous delight and these passions, refines 
them as gold in the crucible. St. B'rancis of Assisi 
and St. Francis of Sales were at the same time both 
passionate lovers of nature and mystics. Nature, 
far from distracting their attention from the essen- 
tials of spiritual life, showed them, under the flee- 
ing forms of the creation, the unity and the repose 
of the Creator. All that lives, every object, every 
plant, every animal, even the smallest and the 
humblest, are beautiful as the very handiwork of 
God. They are so many mirrors of His perfection. 
Did St. BYancis not preach to the birds, the fishes 
and the wolf? 

Gezelle's mysticism is of a Franciscan type. 
He loves nature in all its aspects. The radiance 
of its beauty is, for him, infinitely vivified by the 
spirit of God pervading it, as evening light kindles 
into a thousand mingling fiames of color the stain- 
ed glass windows of a cathedral. In Gezelle's work 
we find poems inspired by the contemplation of na- 
ture only, describing exclusively its outward as- 
pects. Meritorious they are for their originality, 
and exactness of vision, but even in them one 
hears, if distantly reverberant, the note of ador- 
ation. And, if he disconcerts, in some poems, by 
his innocent laughter, his buoyant and almost emp- 
ty gaiety, his toying with glittering rhyme, there 
still he shows a kind of reverence for nature. In 
the childlike laughter of that mystic soul is some- 
thing of the divine simplicity of St. Francis of 


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Assisi, who taught his disciples to sing and rejoice 
as the "Mountebanks of God," the "Joculatores 
domini." His very ecstasy before even the simplest 
forms of nature denotes how he saw more in them, 
or behind them, than mere form and color. A 
spider running on the polished mirror of a pool 
seems to him to write with its movements, the 
name of God on the water, a tree turns its blos- 
soms towards its Creator in offering of thanks, the 
skylark flies up as an arrow to His throne. He saw: 

... a world in a grain of sand, 
and a Heaven in a wild flower, 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
and Eternity in an hour (W. Blake). 
In one of his poems he shows God listening to 
the sighing of reeds in a brook with the same pa- 
ternal goodness as to the song of the poet and the 
plaint of man: 

The Rustling of the Whispering Reed. 

"O! The rustling of the whispering reed! O! 
Could I sing your song of pain, when weak the 
winds around you twine and low your bending 
heads incline .... You bow so humbly yielding 
down, arise and bow low down again, and bowing 
sing that song of pain, that my soul loves, O rust- 
ling reed! 

O! The rustling of the whispering reed! Haw 
many a time was I sitting still, quite near the lone* 
ly waterbrook, alone and by no man disturbed, and 
glanced over the wimpllng water clear, and watch- 
ed your weak wabbling waves while listening to 
your song of pain, that you sang for me, O whis- 
pering reed! 


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O! The rustling of the whispering reed! How 
many a man has passed near by, and heard your 
singing harmony, but headed not and hastened 
forth. Away! Where distant goals their hearts 
enchant! Away! Where yellow gold draws them, 
Never they understood your murmured plaint, O 
my beloved, my sighing reed! 

But no! Ah, no! my rustling reed, your voice 
deserves no haughty scorn. God made the stream; 
God made your stem; God ordered: "Breathe . . . 
"A slow wind sighed and twined around your stem, 
which bent and climbed again . . . God listened 
.... and your plaintive song brought joy to God, 
O rustling reed! 

But no! But no! Rustling slender reed, my 
soul does not disdain your voice, my soul which 
from the same God received feeling, upon His com- 
mand, that feeling which understands your plaint, 
when you bend low and raise your heads. But no! 
Ah! No! My whispering reed, my soul does not 
disdain your plaint! 

That the rustling of the whispering reed may 
echo in my mournful song! And quivering climb 
before Thy feet. Thou giver to both of light and 
life . . . O Thou, who boldest not in disdain the mur- 
mur of an humble reed, O do not disdain my hum- 
ble plea ... I, poor and pining, plaintive reed!" 

Gezelle's thought is not turned wholly inward, 
to the contemplation of the Divine, but also out- 
ward, to Nature, sacred as a reflexion of the infin- 
ite. And, as we remarked in the preceding pages, 
bis gaze upon nature is minute, realistic and in- 
tense. On the purely descriptive side he is a 
realist, noting with scrupulous care, sound, color 


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and form, gazing intently upon every detail of his 
surroundings, painting them with the richness of 
a Rubens. 

Nothing shows more clearly the nothingness of 
our labels and psycho-literary distinctions than the 
fact that in Gezelle are blended harmoniously to- 
gether an intensive realist and a mystic, types 
which following our definitions are irreconcilable. 
The harmony of his soul is not one of contradic- 
tions reconciled by intellectual effort as with 
Goethe, it is a simple, a natural growth: it is the. 
outcome of a naive but intense love for every 
creature and for God. Gezelle wanted to be noth- 
ing more than a flower in God's sunshine, a thing 
of beauty, the work of God's own hands, always 
turning towards the sun, towards the Creator. 

The highest plane of life is simple and freed 
from the burdens and ambitions of ordinary exist- 
ence. In this simplicity live both the saint and the 
great poet. Delivered from the load of the unes- 
sential things of life, they rediscover in themselves 
the divine sources of eternal childhood. Their high- 
pitched, eager souls are profoundly naive, and 
therefore they perceive relations between things, 
mysterious and grandiose, which only pure eyes 
can contemplate. They stare at the world with the 
reverential wonder of a child and feel God's actual 
presence in its beauty. Every new-bom momins 
is a paradise, every effulgent noon is an endless 
glory, every evening a fading purple mystery. They 
feel God in the starry nights, high domes of sound- 
less peace, when the soul in prayer seems to glide 
over the vast, dark waters of silence. For them. 

From sky to sod. 

The world's unfolded blossom smells of 

God." (Francis Thompson). 


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Gezelle had the mystic's familiarity with all that 
is divine. He bids the winds to lull lest they should 
disturb the sleep of the holy Infant. He thanks 
God again and again for the daily gifts he has re- 
ceived. He exclaims: "Jesus, mark my head with 
Thy blood, please. Thy blood on my head, on my 
forehead. That everyone may see it, so that every 
one sees: that Thou art mine, that I am Thine." 

His was a feeling of the nearness and accessi- 
bility of God, whom he did not seek upon transcend- 
ent heights of thought; who did not shake the 
earth in His eternal wrath, but revealed himself in 
the fugitive laughter of the light on spring days, 
and in a state of luminous happiness of the soul. 
Henry Moore wrote about a similar experience in 
one of his "Mystical Dialogues:" "I am not out of 
my wits in this divine freedom, for God does not 
ride me as a horse, and guide me I know not whith- 
er, but converseth with me as a friend 

He that is come hither, God hath taken him to be 
His own familiar friend; and though He speaks to 
others aloof off, in outward religions and parables, 
yet He leads this man by the hand, teaching him 
intelligible documents upon all the objects of his 
providence; speaks to him plainly in his own lan- 
guage, sweetly insinuates Himself and possesseth 
all his faculties, understanding reason and memory. 
This is the darling of God, and a prince among 
men, far above the dispensation of either miracle 
or prophet." 

The symbol of God, for Gezelle, is the sun, fa- 
miliar to mystics as the symbol of the joy of the 
divine presence. Did Novalis not write?: 


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and form, gazing intently -j 
sorroandtngs, painting tiien 
a Rnbens, 

Nothing shoTK-s more cler 
oar labels and psycbo-llterar 
fact that in Gezelle are hlr^ 
gether an Intensive realist 
which following our definiti 
The harmofLj of his soul i& 
tions reconciled by Intelle 
Goethe, it is a simple, a nat 
outcome of a naive but ir 
creature and for God, Gezei 
ing more than a flower in G 
of beauty, the work of God 
turning towards the sun, tow 

The highest plane of lif» 
from the burdens and amblti' 
ence. In this simplicity live l 
great poet. Delivered from 
sential things of life, they re^ 
the divine sources of eternal '■ 
pitched, eager souls art* 
therefore they perce! 
mysterious and ^an 
can contemp' 
reverential \v .. . 

. jr«^»^ 




>rCore Thj ejes I blosaom, 

^ iiidi ecemal, nererctaans* 

.y tue, wretched creature; to 

tr Uiis low life, reserres eter- 

■^bT U^lit, my Joy, my pain, my 
r ODlj and my alL What 
l:e a death eternal? What 
- .o^ I can lore and like? 

T'aee, albdlt that Thou, deep 

' : erer life can sire, comeat 

'd ladiatest, O deei^belored 

Hi, Thy all-penradin^ glow. 

uvjiv^r me! Unbind my earthly 

*^U||Jne and dig me out. I^et me so 

~~ BUmmer alwaya and gimllgfat, Lat 

Thoij fionrishest, eternal, nniqiie 

our Qf eternity. 


er befkxre O not before 

nr Thee, in Thee, if Thoa allow- 
reatnre, to taste of Life eternal, 
resolTe mys^f in Thy eternal 

jsm was leas intellectnal :h^ii 

ot Teste hia own apfritsal cam- 

'.- Swedenborg. bat Kte St, 

e have to compare hira -^-c^ 
: cith the ancient fkith. T>:^ 

;;ei;i:ii^I temper is at the same iXm^ 




"Nur eine Nacht der Wonne, 
Ein ewlges Gedicht! 
Und unser Aller Sonne 
1st Gottes Angesicht." 

AH thru Gezelle's Books ran as a continual 
thread, hymns and canticles to the light. We find 
it used symbolically in one of his early volumes: 
"Poems, Songs and Prayers": 

The Sun. 

"O Sun, when I stand in my green leaves, my 
petals full of pearly dew, and you fare forth In 
splendour, my blossoming heart enraptured gazes 
on you. When lofty, on the high seat throning of 
the reddening break of day, forget not the little 
flower that waits and yearns for you. 

O sun, when you climb, never tired, the glitter- 
ing paths of the sky, I follow you with all my pet- 
als, open for you from dawn: Come seek out my 
heart and find it. Yours it is from immemorial 
times; you it loves, upon you it gazes, — ^my Bride- 
groom from Paradise! 

And when in the evening twilight darkens, 
when you sink in the glowing west, I watch your 
faint beams fading, and sink down with you to rest. 
My head lowered upon my poor stem, I weep for- 
saken all the night. Come, O sun my beloved, I 
ana yearning to revive by your caress!" 

And in his last volume he repeats the symbol 
of sun and flower, more clearly indicated this time: 


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Ego Flos! 

I am a flower and before Thy eyes I blossom, 
immensely glaring Sun, which eternal, never-chang- 
ing, allows indulgently me, wretched creature, to 
flower here, — who after this low life, reserves eter- 
nal life for me. 

My life lies in Thy light, my joy, my pain, my 
hope and happiness, my only and my all. What 
can I, without Thee but die a death eternal? What 
is there, without Thee that I can love and like? 

I am so far from Thee, albeit that Thou, deep 
well of all that lives and ever life can give, comest 
nearest of all to me, — and radiatest, O deep-beloved 
sun, into my deepest soul, Thy all-pervading glow. 

O cease! deliver me! Unbind my earthly 
shackles, uproot me and dig me out. Let me go 
there where it is summer always and sunlight. Let 
me haste to where Thou flourishest, eternal, unique 
Flower, in a splendour of eternity. 

Then I will flower before O not before 

Thy eyes, but near Thee, in Thee, if Thou allow- 
est me, wretched creature, to taste of Life eternal, 
— if Thou let me resolve myself in Thy eternal 

Qezelle's mysticism was less intellectual than 
emotional. He did not create his own spiritual con- 
ceptions like Boehme or Swedenborg, but, like St. 
Francis, to whom we have to compare him once 
more, he was contented with the ancient faith. This 
deflciency of Intellectual temper is at the same time 


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Gezelle's great shoilcomlng and his great gift. It 
prevented him from fortifying and supporting his 
emotional mysticism by a frame of ideas, from 
raising it to the height of the conceptions of Dante, 
Vondel or Milton, from attaining the higher forms 
of more intellectual art. But, if he had been gifted 
with a critical and sharply discerning intellect, be- 
sides his outstanding sensuous and emotional pow- 
ers, would he not have lost that naivete in observa- 
tion, that directness in his emotions, that childlike 
faith which are the most precious qualities of his 
work? A more piercing critical faculty would have 
modified deeply the tendencies of his naive soul. 

His faith and his mystic adoration had no need 
of the proofs of theology and history. He SAW 
like all mystics, he perceived and felt the unity of 
God and the world. What need to prove it after- 
ward by majors and minors? Do we try to demon- 
strate the existence of the sun by the handy rea- 
soning schemes of logic? 

Mysticism, as Gezelle conceived it, is the dis- 
covery of the essential unity of the self, God and 
creation and an aspiration towards identification 
with this eternal One, thru love. 

To the merely religious and even to many mys- 
tics, an opposition, a dualism divides God and the 
creature, soul and body, a painful division and anti- 
thesis of the lower and the higher. Gezelle resolved 
these oppositions into a harmony which does not 
stand outside of the Roman Catholic church. In his 
joyful contemplation of creation he remains in ac- 
cordance with the Greek Fathers as well as with 
other leading Roman Catholics as, for instance, 
F^n^lon. "The wider our contemplation of creation^ 


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the grander will be our conception of God" said Cyril. 

Gezelle's eyes were not blinded to the beau- 
ty of the earth, when they were opened to the 
beauty of heaven. He perceived between the life 
of the netherworld and the life eternal many sym- 
bolic relations. The rebirth of Spring is for him 
symbol, sign and promise of resurrection; the very 
birds sing Easter hymns; the nightingale's song is 
pure "soul fire"; a beautiful leaf sweeps all the 
harps of paradise into music. His was not the al- 
most Buddhistic body loathing and aspiration to- 
ward self-annihilation. And here again he is a 
child of the Roman Catholic church. His mystical 
life fitted into the frame of its tradition. It was 
not a new intellectual docrine, not the evocation of 
a vague atmosphere, no sentimental religiosity, no 
literary "attitude," but a way of living life fully, a 
definite doctrine, made up of the essentials of 
Christianity. "If hatred and contempt of matter 
and all connected with it, as proceeding from the 
principle of evil, characterizes Gnostics, Neo-plat- 
inists, Manicheans, Catharists, Puritans and kin- 
dred schools, it is distinctive of Christ and Ca- 
tholic Christianity to recognize body and soul as 
created by God, each in his image and likeness; to 
view the flesh as the sacrament and expression of 
the spirit." (Tyrell— The Faith of the Millions). 

Gezelle would have subscribed to the words of 
Huysmans in his preface to the "Latin Mystique" 
of Remy de Gourmont (first edition). "L* on pent 
dire de la Mystique qu' elle est I'S-me et qu* elle 
est Tart de V Eglise mSme. Or, elle appartient au 
catholicisme et elle est k lui seul. II ne faut pas, 
en effet, confondre le vague k V &me, ou ce qu'on 
appelle V id^alisme et le spiritualisme, ou mdme 
encore le d^isme, c'est a dire de confuses postula- 


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tions vers r inconnu, vers un au-del^ plus on moins 
occulte, avec la Mystique qui salt ce qu* elle veut, o<i 
elle va, qui cherche a 6treindre un Dieu qu* elle 
connatt et qu' elle precise, qui veut s* abtmer en 
Lui, tandis que Lui-mdme s* ^pand en elle. La 
Mystique a done une acception d^limit^e et un but 
net, et elle n' a aucun rapport avec les ^lancements 
plus ou moins litt^raires dont on nous parle." 

It was from this point of view that Gezelle 
looked upon the ceremonies of the church, which 
for the critical eye of the unsympathizing onlooker 
might so easily seem fantastic or even ridiculous. 
They never did lose their lustre and their signifi- 
cance for him and remained free from the wear 
and tear of a daily familiarity with them, as a 
priest. He felt vividly their symbolism. He wrote 
a series of poems called: The XIV Hours of the 
bloody Day of our Lord," where various personages 
describe Christ's sufferings: Magdalena, the Holy 
Women, the four Evangelists, etc. His work was 
here manifestly inspired by the fourteen "stations 
of the holy Cross," which adorn the walls of all 
Flemish churches. In another poem he describes 
the stained glass-windows of the cathedral, full of 
martyrs, bishops, saints and virgins who are, in the 
morning resplendent in a glory of sparkling miters, 
crowns and staffs, silver dresses and purple cloaks, 
like a multi-colored rainbow. But when the glow 
of the sun at noon falls thru them, the sparkling 
of the colors becomes so vivid and so violent that 
they melt away in white light: "No palms, no 
staffs, no stoles any more; all is away; melted in 
one single radiance, in one sunglare, in God." The 
mystical meaning of this symbol is clear: the souls 
of the saints in the midday glory of love melt in the 
light of God. 

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He depicts the Good Friday service in the 
Catholic church: the strange mass without bells, 
without incense, without altarcloth, when the 
lugubrious plaint of the "Dies Irae, Dies Ilia" re- 
sounds in the graves under the church-slabs, Trlnjid 
purple veils cover all the images and the caosses; 
when the weird crackle of a rattle announces 
Doomsday. The clouds of incense become a symbol 
of the prayer ascending from the fire of his heart. 

This feeling of beauty in the acts of his daily 
existence as a priest shows again how his poetry 
was connected with his everyday life and not an 
empty exercise in the voids of abstraction. He felt 
Divinity always near to him, holding his heart in 
an eternal embrace: "Deep in myself there speaks 
and listens One, untouched by darkness, day or 
death. If I were imprisoned in stone and steel. He 
still would tread in, alone, and say, even when he 
found me sleeping: "I am waking." 

He found God as the only reality behind the 
world of the senses, the meaning behind the symbol. 
Piercing to the mystical kernel of his faith, he 
went beyond form and letter, realizing the mystical 
spirit of ceremonies. In this way his mysticism ac- 
quires a general human value: it goes down to these 
essentials which are the same under all the passing 
forms of religion; it brings us to this uplifting of 
the soul which is the essence of all prayer and all 

The white glow of Gezelle's mystical poetry re- 
minds one of the Verlaine of "Sagesse." Physi- 
cally he resembled the French poet strikingly: the 
same "t6te glabre," the enormous prominent fore- 


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head and, in his face, deep lines of thought. The 
differences, however, are not less marked. Over Ver- 
laine's face lies the passionate and disenchanted 
expression of an old satyr. In whose cavernous eyes 
still smoulders the spark of lust, of pleasures half 
desired and half despised. Over Gezelle's features 
is spread the calm repose of a soul at peace while 
a more childlike simplicity smiles in his eyes. He 
was "r enfant v^tu de laine et d 'innocence" that 
Verlaine vainly tried to be consistently. The soul 
of the "pauvre Lilian" was made up of unblended 
contrasts. He was tossed from mystical prayers 
to all the excesses of the senses; he knew the rad- 
iance of God's grace and the enervating languour 
of the gardens of passion. Gezelle's psychology has 
a consistent unity and harmony: the unity of deep- 
living faith. Yet both stood equally pure and sim- 
ple before the beauty of the world with the earn- 
estness of true poets. They had a common hatred 
for empty rhetoric, a common preference for "la 
musique avant toute chose," for an art of delicate 
word shading, essentially musical in its quivering 
rhythms. And in both we find that aspiration to- 
ward" le moyen-age 6norme et d^licat." 

The Middle Ages for which their heart yearned 
was not the Middle Ages of dusty Theology and 
hair-splitting metaphysics, but that of the Cathe- 
drals, of the mystics, of troubadours and folksong. 
Verlaine lived in the spirit of this atmosphere only 
during his crisis of mysticism, Gezelle always re- 
mained, in his faith and outlook upon life, a man 
of mediaeval times. All his life long he bore the 
mark and imprint of old Bruges and traditional 

In stressing Gezelle's mediaeval outlook, we do 

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not wish to convey the idea that he had exactly the 
current intellectual convictions of those times. In 
him lingered and survived, however, the emotional 
states of mind of ages past, as in the very streets 
and houses of the old cities where he lived, Bruges 
and Ypres, similar to the fragrance of a perfumed 
wine still clinging to a marble vase long after the 
wine had been poured. 

To appreciate fully his religious verse, we must 
cast aside our scepticism, our intellectual unrest, 
our more or less logical religiosity. His was the 
simplicity of a soul of the Middle Ages resolving 
oppositions into harmony, seeing the symbol in the 
concrete, the ideal in the actual . . Life and art 
were one for him as they were for those anony- 
mous builders of the Cathedrals, whose work ex- 
pressed the soul of a people rather than that of 
the individual. So Gezelle expressed the soul of 
Flanders, in both its sensuous and its mystical ten- 

The singular charm of his work, like that of his 
personality, lies in the harmonious union of 
love of the Eternal with a lyrical enjoyment of the 
outside world. Nature appeared to him in the sim- 
ple beauty of innocence, in the holiness of God's 
own love, as on the first glorious day of creation. 
And each creature had a voice of praise for light 
and life. From the clod up to the stars sounded aud- 
ibly to his soul an eternal and lofty jubilee, the 
Canticle of unity. Beyond the ever wavering 
change, behind the ever ebbing forms of life, he felt 
the restful peace of God's undisturbed existence. 

So he lived simply and beautifully with the 
confidence of a fiower in the sun. He repeated 


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it so many times: "Ego nos" "I am a flower". And 
no better symbol can be found for him. As a flow- 
er Gezelle was rooted in the very ground of his 
land, and sucked his strength from the sod of his 
own country. He followed naturally his instinct 
for beauty, as a flower grows simply and is an 
astonishing wonder. And as the flower turns its 
heart towards the sun and follows it up in its 
course, so he turned his soul toward the light of 

And when flowers have withered and died, a 
fragrance still remains and floats in the air, the 
faint perfume of their beauty. So his existence as 
a poet seems to have left a fragrance undying in 
the air of Flanders. 

His life and work are a lesson for our anxious 
times of intellectual unrest. He did not despise 
life with the sardonic smile of the cynic, he was 
not crushed by it into weak hearted melancholy, he 
did not make light of it with blasphemous mock- 
ery, nor secluded himself in a palace of dreams. His 
existence was a luminous synthesis of God and the 
self and the world, a synthesis wherein the sub- 
lime was simple: a union of the soul of a child and 
the soul of a saint. 


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